by Brother Locoweed Christian aka Phil Geusz
"Brrrrroooom!" little Berry crooned, driving his toy pickup truck up and down his mother's expensive office-window curtains. Meanwhile, I watched and smiled approvingly from one of her swivel-chairs. He was all dressed up in a miniature green surgeon's smock and wearing a toy stethoscope around his neck, just like the one his mother always wore at work. His Aunt Cornflower had bought him the getup for his birthday last month, and already it was almost worn out. Everyone just knew that my eldest son was going to be a great gengineer someday, like his mother and her father before him. Then it was Digger's turn to gurgle and try to escape from my lap; it was well past his evening feeding time, and my number-two son was not shy, not in the least! Any time now, he'd be raising the rafters.
"Shhh," I whispered gently, bobbling my youngest up and down on my knee. He liked that a lot, though if I wasn't careful his pointy eartips would poke me in the eyes. "We'll be done here soon, I hope. And then you can have the baa-baa for just as long as you want."
"...still regret the timing of this," Derrick continued, eyes momentarily downcast. "I wouldn't have planned it this way for anything. I feel as I'm intruding upon your grief."
My wife Sundew frowned and looked down at her carpet; I opened my mouth to answer for her, but Oaktree spoke up first. "It's quite all right, I assure you," he replied, smiling his widest smile. That particular smile exposed every centimeter of his overly-long incisors; somehow, it always looked very fake to me. "While we all regret the passing of Sweetgrass -- none more than me, I can assure you! -- we Church leaders recognize that life must go on." He raised his eyes heavenwards. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, you see, and never explains to we mere mortals why it is that he calls some Home sooner than others."
Sundew closed her eyes and lowered her ears, while I wriggled my nose in frustration. Sweetgrass had been my father-in-law, and Sundew's father. He and I, in fact, had loved each other like father and son. None of us three had ever been religious people in the traditional sense of the word; we were Lapists, and Lapism was very much a philosophy of life rather than a religion in the traditional sense. And yet here was Oaktree invoking the mystical for us as if he somehow had the right.
"Oaktree," I countered gently. "I don't think that --"
The big black-and-white Rabbit's smile grew even wider. "Of course, Silkfur," he acknowledged. "Forgive me." He turned back to our reporter-guest. "My Boardmate here is reminding me in his polite way that I'm exceeding my brief. I'm an old-fashioned preacher at heart, you see. I was one for many years, before my bishop and I had a parting of the ways over this Rabbit-thing. It's hard for me to forget old habits sometimes."
Derrick's eyebrows rose in interest. He was, after all, a religious reporter for one of the nation's biggest papers. "You were a preacher once, Oaktree?"
"Indeed," he began, warming to his subject. "You see, Lapism does not run counter to Christian doctrine -- "
"Aaah!" Digger cried out very loudly, waving his little forepaws. "Aaaaaah!"
"Or at least we don't have any problem with Christians on our end of things," I interjected smoothly, taking advantage of the opening my son had created for me. "Or Muslims or Jews or pagans or anyone else, for that matter. Sweetgrass never claimed to know the answer to any of the great mysteries; why we're here, what our lives are for, whether or not there's an afterlife. Indeed, he was more a hard agnostic than anything else. Yet, we've only a handful of Christians among us Rabbits so far." I cocked my head at Oaktree. "We've even fewer former clergymen."
Oaktree shrugged his shoulders in a display of clearly false modesty. "Once a professional, always a professional," he answered. Then his features grew more serious. "So, you're going to go ahead with the full transformation and the series of articles anyway?"
"Absolutely!" the reporter replied. "Sweetgrass' murder was a tragedy, of course -- all of you have my sincere condolences. I interviewed him several times and, well... I think that he was a genuinely great man, in his own way. I've always tried to portray him and his movement sympathetically." He smiled. "If I didn't think so highly of Sweetgrass, and at least to a degree admire what he made of himself, I'd never have even considered the Rabbit-thing when Oaktree suggested it to me. His loss is a major setback for your Church, personal issues aside." We all nodded in acknowledgement. "But as far as I can see, you fully intend to press on."
I frowned slightly. "Of course; how could we do anything else? But becoming a Rabbit is a very serious commitment," I began. "Not something to be undertaken merely in order to write a news story. Or even a whole series of stories. To us, in fact, it is a very deep -- "
"I'm sure that your readers will be fascinated by what you learn," Oaktree interrupted me. "No, you won't hear choirs of angels on day one. But still, the insights will come. Sundew here is every bit as talented as her beloved father was. And when she gets done with you -- "
"Waaaaah!" Digger cut in, employing his very shrillest whine. It's time to eat, he was saying as clearly as if he'd used actual words. Right now! "Waaaah!"
"Excuse me," I explained over the sudden wailing. Digger had impeccable timing, at least, if not the best of manners. I wasn't sure that I could have spent a minute more in the room with Oaktree without saying something undiplomatic. "Someone's late for dinner." Very deliberately, I stood up; Sundew, after the slightest of hesitations, followed my lead.
"Come on, Berry," she exclaimed, her first words in almost an hour. She reached out her hand, and our eldest dashed over to take it. "It's time to go."
"Aww!" Derrick answered, his knowing smile betraying the fact that he too had once had very young children. "Your kids are so cute! And Blueberry's so well-behaved, too!" Then he cocked his head to one side. "They're the first, aren't they? To be made into bunnies so young?"
"Uh-huh," I replied absently, stooping down for the diaper bag as my wife tucked Berry's toy into her jacket pocket and then began shutting off the lights. Oaktree frowned at that, but said nothing. After all, this was her office. Not his.
The soon-to-be-lapine reporter stood up to leave as well. "Then if you don't mind, I'd like to spend a little time with them, too. After I get Changed, I mean. Some people think Changing kids is barbaric, you know. Not that I necessarily agree."
"If you'd like," I replied absently.
"It's no problem at all," Sundew agreed, smiling very prettily considering that she was just finishing up a fourteen-hour workday. "Your appointment with me is..."
"Monday," Derrick answered. "Monday, the twenty-eighth."
My wife nodded as she helped Berry into his jacket; it was very chilly outside. "Then by the fifteenth of next month you can spend all the time you like with Berry and Digger. Or any of us, for that matter." She smiled again. "My father liked you, Mr. Taylor. So much so that once he'd met you, he made it a point to read your articles whenever he had the chance, right up until the day he died."
Suddenly Derrick was blushing. "I... Uh..."
Sundew bent over and lifted Berry up into her arms; we had a long flight of stairs to descend, and our son was still a bit awkward on his oversized feet. She kissed him, and his face lit up in joy. "My father liked you," she repeated. "And in all my life, I never knew him to misjudge anyone's basic character -- not even before he became a Rabbit".
She kissed Berry a second time, then turned him around so that he was looking backwards over her shoulder. He was getting too big to be carried; I certainly hoped that the foot-thing resolved itself fairly soon. Of course, we had no way of knowing, however, what with our son being the first ever to have to deal with the problem. "I don't usually make people into Rabbits unless they're a lot more committed than you are, Mr. Taylor. No matter what the majority of our Board of Directors asks. Even the law is rather gray on the subject, though with your connections and background I'm not anticipating any problems. But for you, I'm going to make an exception." She turned to look at Oaktree. "Not because of your column, or because of the millions of people who read it. None of that really matters to me." She turned back to the reporter. "I'm going to do it simply because my father liked and respected you. And, because I think that you might just profit from the experience."
There was an elevator at the foot of the stairs, which went the rest of the way down to the parking garage. "I wanna push the button!" Berry declared, even before his mother had fully set him down. "I wanna do it!"
"Okay," I answered with a grin, waiting until he was once more solidly on terra firma instead of pushing the button myself. With head held high, my five-year-old strutted across the little hallway, reached up, and pushed the "Down" button.
"Good job!" his mother declared, and our little boy grinned so wide that I was afraid he'd hurt his face. He looked just his mother when he smiled, I decided, despite the perpetual little food stains that adorned the white fur around his mouth. Berry was always dirty, it seemed; already, Sundew and I had long-since decided that making him an all-white Rabbit hadn't been the most brilliant parental move we'd ever made. Then the door was open and Berry strutted through, adding an extra little bounce to every step for the sheer joy of it.
"I wish I had that much energy," Sundew murmured as we dropped the last five floors down to the University parking garage.
"He'll be out like a light by eight," I predicted.
My wife sighed. "Me too, I'm afraid. I've got an early procedure tomorrow."
The doors slid open then, which was just as well; the movement distracted Sundew so that she didn't notice my sudden frown. We never seemed to have any time together anymore. Things had been bad enough before, but since Sweetgrass' death the full gengineering workload of the Church had landed squarely on my wife's shoulders. Nor has my own life been made any easier, I reminded myself. "I've got a special Board meeting tomorrow night as well, after class," I replied. "About the financial crisis. If we didn't have adjoining parking spaces, we'd never see each other at all anymore."
"Heh!" she snorted as she reached down to take Blueberry's patiently upraised hand; he knew the rules about parking lots, and obeyed them cheerfully. What a good child he was, I reminded myself with a burst of warmth and pride. What an extraordinarily good and pleasant child!
Sundew drove a very nice little minivan; it was mortgaged, naturally, just like everything else we owned. Becoming a Rabbit was expensive even if you got a family discount, and Sundew and I were paying for four such changes, including two for our kids. Those had been even more costly than our own; new techniques had been required. We'd be twenty years or more paying it all off, despite Sundew's large income. "How about if I drive us all home?" she suggested. "You can leave your car here, and tomorrow I'll drop the kids off at daycare on the way in. You're planning to stay home and work on your thesis anyway, right?"
"Right," I agreed, frowning. I'd met Sundew and Sweetgrass while in the Coast Guard, which I'd fully planned to make a career of. But I'd fallen in love, and then Sweetgrass had talked me into becoming one of the founding Board members of the Church, and from there one thing had led to another until I found myself working on my Master's in Comparative Religion, of all things. But everything was up in the air now; Sweetgrass had been my thesis advisor, and the only one in the whole program I'd really cared for...
Sundew sighed, misinterpreting my frown. "I know we're on a budget, Silk," she explained. "And daycare costs money. But that degree is important, honey! Or important to you, at least." She rose up on her toes and kissed me, carefully avoiding jostling Digger in the process. "Which means that it's important to all of us."
I closed my eyes and sighed as my wife opened up the van and strapped Berry in back, then took my own turn getting Digger squared away into his carseat. Our youngest was still as fractious as all get-out, and fought and screamed every inch of the way. He didn't want to go anywhere; he just wanted to eat! "It's okay, Digs!" I reassured my youngest, lifting a bottle out of the diaper bag and showing it to him. That always calmed him down a little; he was intelligent enough to understand that he wouldn't be waiting much longer. Our particular model of minivan came equipped with an on-board bottle-warmer; Digs watched in fascination as I placed his meal in the little receptacle and pushed the button. "Bing!" went the timer a few seconds later, a happy, joyful little sound. Some engineer with kids of his own had worked overtime on that particular feature, I suspected. And I was grateful as hell.
"Bing!" little Digger agreed, clapping his forepaws in delight. "Bing!" had been his first word, more or less, though he still didn't talk much otherwise. "Bing! Bing! Bing!"
"Bing!" I agreed, smiling again as I handed the bottle over and then climbed into my own seat. Sundew already had the van rolling by the time I was belted in, and before I knew it we were out the door and into the flow of traffic.
"Awww!" Berry complained from the back seat. "It's still raining!"
I nodded sadly; every single day since my father-in-law's death had been gray and filled with rain, it seemed, though I knew that this wasn't really the case. "It's supposed to rain all week, Berry," I explained.
"Why... I mean... How can they know when it's gonna rain?" Berry asked.
"They take pictures of the clouds," I explained. "And see where they're going to go." It seemed like it was probably a good enough explanation for a five year old, and apparently Berry agreed.
"Oh," he replied, playing with his toe-claws.
"You're so good with the kids," Sundew said, smiling.
I shook my head slightly. "They're just good with me, is all." Then my mouth formed a thin line. "I wish you'd spend more time with them."
My wife sighed. We were getting on the highway now, and I let her tackle the difficult merge in silence. Then she guided us in smoothly behind a large tanker truck, and resumed the conversation. "We're terribly overloaded at the office," she explained. "You know that, Silk. And you know why."
"I do," I answered softly. There was another long silence; first a shopping mall went by, then a big sports complex all lit up and in use despite the steady downpour. "You're the only licensed gengineer left making Rabbits, now that your Dad has passed on. Therefore, you've got his whole schedule of appointments to fill besides your own, at least until you get caught up." I frowned. "But... Honey, the kids hardly know you, it seems! Hell, I hardly ever get to see you. You never even make it to Discussion Time anymore."
Sundew's lips formed a line as hard as my own. "It's terrible, isn't it?" she replied at last. "Our whole system of belief is based on the regard in which we hold each other, the importance of interpersonal relationships, and on the idea that the family in all of its many forms is the most vital thing of all. And yet, it's the demands of the Faith itself that keep you and I from living up to our own professed ideals. I have gengineering appointments all day long, from dawn to dusk and more." She turned and met my eyes for a second. "And you have Board issues."
Touché, I thought to myself, turning and staring out the passenger side window into the dark glumness. "All right," I admitted with a sigh. "All right. I'll admit that the Church has been eating up my time, as well." I sighed again, and shook my head. "Is there never any end to it? Your father made it look so easy!"
"Heh!" Sundew chuckled as she pulled over into the exit lane. Home was only a few blocks away, now. Our apartment might not be much, but it was warm and dry and private. "Of course Dad made it look easy; for him it was easy." A single tear rolled down her elegantly-sculpted cheek a little ways before being absorbed into her soft, honey-brown fur. Sweetgrass would be dead a month tomorrow, and neither my wife nor I were even close to being over his passing. "He was a natural unifier, the center of everything Lapist. The beloved prophet of a golden age. For him, every problem really did have a solution, and every Lapist was his close, personal friend. But for you and me, well..." She shook her head. "I don't think things are ever going to be nearly so easy again."
I didn't even notice the next morning when Sundew left, which was very unusual. Instead I slept in until ten, which I'd been doing more and more often since Sweetgrass' death. Then I plugged away listlessly at my dissertation for what felt like endless hours; somehow, it just didn't seem very important anymore. I'd chosen Lapism: A New Spiritual Path as my title, and in the beginning Sweetgrass and I had spent more evenings than I could remember drinking beer and laying out the foundations of the paper. It had all seemed so exciting, so long as he'd been part of it. But now that he was dead, every word was the re-opening of an old wound. It was just as well that the doorbell rang when it did; I was on the verge of taking a break anyway. "Hello!" Detective Howard greeted me when I swung the door open. "May I come in?"
"Of course," I answered, stepping aside for the tall blonde woman to enter. Detective Howard was investigating Sweetgrass' death. Ever since she'd determined that Sundew and the kids and I had been out of state for over a week visiting my folks before the killing, she'd been very kind to us. "Want some coffee?"
"Black, please," she affirmed, sitting down in our cluttered kitchen. Blueberry had left his toy truck on the table, and Howard smiled at it. "They grow up much too quickly," she observed. "Enjoy it while you can."
Howard's own son was nineteen, I knew. She talked a lot about him, in between asking perceptive, penetrating questions. "I treasure every single minute," I replied honestly. "Except diaper-changing minutes. Sundew can treasure those, if she likes."
"Heh!" she snorted, almost spilling her coffee. "She's at work? Your wife, I mean."
"Yes," I confirmed. "She's carrying her father's caseload on top of her own, until something can be done to slow things down. Sometimes we don't see each other for days."
"Right," the detective agreed absently, blue eyes momentarily unfocused as she filed yet another fact away. Then she shook her head slightly and returned to the matter at hand. "Well... I just came by to share some new information with you. All the lab tests came back negative on the explosives."
I pressed my lips together. "Negative?" I asked. "How can that be? I mean, there's no question but that there was a bomb." Quite a large bomb, in fact. The paramedics had been hard-pressed to find enough of poor Sweetgrass to bury. My eyes stung a little, and I blinked back tears.
Howard shook her head. "No, that's not what I mean, Silk. All commercial explosives made today, even all military explosives, carry a 'tagging' compound that should leave a distinct, easily-traced residue that can be used to help law-enforcement people figure out where it came from and when it was made and sold." She pressed her lips together. "But the dynamite which blew up Sweetgrass' car was tracer-free. That's virtually unheard-of."
I looked down at the carpet. "Maybe it's that organized-crime angle we discussed?" By the most bizarre of coincidences, Sweetgrass' car had been bombed just outside a restaurant where a middle-level mob figure also happened to be eating dinner at the same time. By an even stranger coincidence, this same mobster drove the same make, model, and color of vehicle as my father-in-law.
"Probably not," she replied, taking a sip of coffee. "With gangster bombings, you generally find tracers. But you also find out that the explosives were stolen, so they don't help you much anyway."
I sighed and shook my head. "I still can't get over it," I said slowly. "He was a gentle, unassuming man. I mean, he had himself made into a Rabbit, for heaven's sake! How much more committed to peace and harmony can you get?"
Howard frowned. "Sometimes killers can be found in the most unlikely of places," she said. "Are you sure that Sweetgrass didn't have any enemies? Anyone in the Church, for example, who might benefit from his death?"
"We're all Rabbits," I continued, my eyes burning again. "All of us! While we're not incapable of violence, it's practically unheard of in the Church. Violent people generally aren't attracted to the Faith in the first place. And murder?" I shook my head forcefully. "It's simply not possible. I don't believe it for a second."
Howard nodded, then exhaled deeply and stood up to leave. "Well," she said slowly, setting down her empty cup. "Maybe Lapists are capable of murder, and maybe they aren't. But one's thing's for sure." She raised her eyes to meet mine.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Someone out there sure as hell is."
Sundew had planned to pick me so that we could enjoy a late lunch together, then ride back to her office where I could pick up my old beater of a car. But about two a nurse rang me up and let me know that a procedure was running overtime.
"There's nothing wrong, is there?" I asked. Every once in a great while, a transition went terribly awry despite every precaution. The results could be fatal, or worse.
"Oh, no" the nurse reassured me. "Nothing like that. It's just that a test result came back late, and we've had a delay as a result. Everything's fine."
"Good," I answered, the relief evident in my voice. The Church had recently lost a convert due to unavoidable transition complications. Malpractice insurance or no, the resulting lawsuit was threatening to bankrupt us. Then I felt a stab of guilt at having thought of our money troubles, when there had been such a terrible human tragedy.
"Dr. Sundew wanted me to ask if you could ride your scooter to the Board meeting this evening, since the weather is all cleared up, and then you can pick up your car another time. She'll pick up the kids."
"The weather's cleared up?" I asked, rather idiotically. Our apartment door opened into a hallway, and other than letting Detective Howard in I hadn't noticed the outside world all morning.
"Oh, yes!" the nurse replied. "It's warm and sunny out; perfect riding weather! I rather envy you, in fact. Don't you love it when the weathermen are wrong? "
I felt myself smile a little for the first time in days. I'd bought my scooter back when the Coast Guard had me stationed in California, and still used it sometimes to buzz around town when the weather allowed. "Sunny and warm, eh? Well... Tell Sundew that she owes me lunch another time, and that I will ride the scooter in."
It should have been an hour's ride to the Broad Street Temple, home base of the entire Lapist movement. But, somehow, I managed to take three. The sun was shining, the grass was green, and people were smiling and waving at me wherever I went. There weren't all that many Rabbits around, and even here in our own home city people still pointed us out to each other. It was good to just sit back and ride for a little while, to let the warm, sweetly-scented wind blow by and think of things other than an unfinished and perhaps unfinishable thesis, a wife who had no time for her family, and the murder of the man I admired more than any other I'd ever known.
The Home Temple wasn't much to look at, really. It was an old Presbyterian church, sold to us at a bargain-basement price by an aging congregation that was simply fading away. We hadn't yet had the time or money to do much with it; some Rabbits wanted to tear down the steeple as being too Christian, for example, while others thought we should replace the stained-glass windows first. Still, though, the Home Temple for the most part suited our needs very well. It was located in a nice neighborhood, and the grounds were large enough to allow for many activities at once. One corner of our land was heavily wooded and had a delightful little creek flowing through it; dozens of young children were frolicking and playing along its banks as I pulled up, watched over by a small group of mixed humans and Rabbits.
"Silkfur!" one of the Rabbits greeted me as I lowered my kickstand and carefully threaded my sensitive ears through the holes in the helmet that I had ever-so-carefully bored to accommodate them. Technically, a helmet so modified was a minor violation of the law, but no police officer had yet objected. "Silkfur! It's so good to see you!"
I smiled and accepted a big hug from Tulip, a small brown lop-bunny. I'd known Tulip in the Coast Guard; it could be said that she was my very first personal convert to Lapism. Like me, she'd settled down, married, and never looked back for a minute. "Hiya, Two's. How are Jem and Jerry?" I asked when she finally let me go.
She nodded out across the playing field, to where two young boys wearing the ears-and-tail of the not-yet-transitioned Lapist were riding on a swing set side-by-side. I grinned, despite myself. Even though Jem and Jerry were several years older than Berry and Digger, they sometimes played together. Not many Lapists had younger kids, as we generally attracted older, more settled converts. "I'm so glad we bought this place," she said, still smiling. "Even though we can't really afford it."
I nodded, smile fading. Oaktree had been the driving force behind us buying ourselves a Temple. Without a physical center for our faith, he'd claimed, we'd eventually drift apart and lose our sense of unity. I'd taken the opposite stand, claiming that we weren't ready for such a step, and might never be. In the end Sweetgrass had reluctantly taken Oaktree's side, and that had ended all argument. As it always did.
"We look forward so much to Sunday Discussions here!" Tulip gushed. "And where else can the kids get to come and see so many Rabbits? They'll be bunnies too someday, just as soon as Cypress and I can afford it. I like it that they can spend time with others and grow comfortable with the idea."
I nodded and smiled again. "I'm glad the Temple is working out so well for you." I looked down at my watch. "But I fear..."
"Of course," Tulip replied, making a small curtsey. "You're late."
"I am," I agreed, bowing slightly. "Please forgive me." And then, very reluctantly, I put the smiling kids and sweet spring air behind me and walked into the Temple.
Hedgeapple was already quoting the Book of Peace when I stepped through the doorway. It was something we always asked him to do before Board meetings, and this time he'd chosen my very favorite passage. "When we choose to walk through a human-filled world as Rabbits..." he was saying as I slipped in beside him, "...we are making a crucial statement about ourselves with every breath we take, a public statement that no one can possibly miss. We are dedicating ourselves to peace, to living our lives in search of purity of soul, and to seeking gentle and humble existences. Living one's life in a Rabbit's body is the most sincere possible commitment to the ideals of peace and harmony. Moreover, because the wearing of a Rabbit's body is such an all-encompassing and obviously different choice of lifestyle, the Rabbit is continually reminded by both himself and others that his actions need now be judged by a higher standard. The new body provides both the means by which improvements in human nature can take place, and a continual spur to achieve greater and greater heights of goodness."
We all nodded soberly, then sat for a moment pondering Sweetgrass' words and what they meant to our lives. I'd been a Rabbit for eight years, not as long as most of the others in the room. And yet, Lapism was right for me. It worked, filled a deep internal void that no other faith or philosophy had ever filled before. Even more, it was right for my family, and even for society as a whole. No, Rabbithood was not for everyone; far from it! But we Rabbits were needed, in some clear yet indefinable way, all the more since so many traditional religions were falling by the wayside. It was almost as if Mankind had an instinctive yearning for the spiritual and the pure, and we Rabbits were designated to chase the dream on behalf of humanity as a whole.
Could there possibly be any more noble purpose to life?
"Well," Oaktree interjected after a little time had passed. "Thank you, Hedgeapple."
The lean jackrabbit smiled and bobbed his head nervously; he spoke very little at Board meetings, outside of his readings. Yet he contributed nonetheless, through his humble presence and tremendous, unquestionable sincerity.
"Well," Oaktree repeated himself. It was at this point in the meetings where Sweetgrass had made it his habit to speak up and take control; none of us really knew what to do yet without him. As a result, we sort of lurched along. "This is a special meeting, as we all know. So there's no purpose in reading minutes or hearing a formal Treasury report."
"Right," Ivy agreed. He was one of our town's most prominent CPAs, and in charge of our relatively paltry funds as well. "Let's get on with it."
Oaktree nodded, then met my eyes. Without hesitation, I nodded slightly. So far, the ex-preacher was doing all right so far as I could see. He nodded back, then began. "All right, folks. We're here because of the lawsuit, and what it could mean to our future." He picked up an envelope covered with official-looking stamps. "As you know, in the absence of any clear successor to Sweetgrass I was served with this letter by the County Court last Tuesday." He held it up and displayed it to everyone. "It could have been any of us; I just happened to be here at the Temple, cutting the grass."
Once again, everyone nodded in near unison. For all of my heartburn with Oaktree, I had to admit that he probably did more than anyone else to help maintain the Temple grounds.
He opened the already torn envelope, and removed the paperwork inside. "I don't need to read all the 'whereas'es and other legalese; it was hard enough to struggle through it the first time. But, we're being sued by the father of Rhododendron Snuggler Rabbit, known until shortly before her failed transition as Katherine Anne MacDounough, for thirty million dollars. Mr. MacDounough, her father, is the plaintiff. He claims that we misled his daughter into undergoing an unsafe, unproven, and unnecessary medical procedure that led to her brain-death." Oaktree looked at me again. "Sweetgrass and your wife are co-defendants."
I nodded; Sundew was well aware of the suit, having been served a few minutes before Oaktree. "She has good malpractice coverage," I answered. "And so did her father. So good that we're not particularly worried about the suit. Not on our own behalves, at least."
Oaktree nodded. "And that's the crux of the issue, Silk. Sweetgrass and Sundew are covered, but the Church itself is not." He sighed. "We really should have thought of this."
"And even if Sundew is fully covered," Ivy interjected, "her rates are bound to go up. Probably by a very large amount. She'll have no choice but to pass the increase on to her patients." He paused, sweeping the table slowly with his big brown eyes. "Our converts. Most of whom can barely afford to be Changed already."
There was a little rumble of conversation up and down the table; "My heavens!" Hedgeapple muttered to himself at my elbow. "Oh, my heavens!"
"So," Oaktree continued. "We've met to try and work out where we go from here." He paused again, staring down at his folded paws. "Most of you know Juniper Casemaker Rabbit, I presume? He's one of our brethren, an attorney in Los Angeles."
About half the heads at the table nodded, including mine.
"Well... Since I was the one actually served with the paperwork, I took it upon myself to contact Juniper and fax him a copy." Oaktree looked unhappy. "He says that we might well be best served to try and settle out of court. That if the case is heard, we'll very likely lose."
I opened my mouth, then shut it again as another Rabbit spoke up. "That's a bunch of baloney!" Petunia Weedpuller declared. "We've done nothing wrong!"
"Look at all the releases that Rhododendron had to sign!" Holly agreed. "That we all had to sign! Sure, it's a long-shot that something might go wrong, but -- "
"-- but courts have been ignoring releases for many years now," Oaktree countered gently. "No one, but no one, can ever really know how a given jury will rule on a given day. Or so Juniper advises us. Again, he advises retaining legal counsel locally, and then settling out of court."
"That would cost... Millions!" Hedgeapple declared into the sudden silence, the impact of his words doubled by their rarity.
"Millions," Oaktree agreed, tossing the letter contemptuously onto the table. "Millions that we cannot possibly raise, as small and as limited a movement as we are. This, I would submit, is the real issue we're here to discuss today."
"And that's when he went right off the tracks," I explained to Sundew late that night. The kids had been in bed since long before my arrival at home, and my wife had made cocktails for both of us. "Up until that point, everything was pretty much going okay. But then, Oaktree lost it."
Sundew sipped at her drink. She was sitting next to me on our little sofa. Her scent was sweet and clean despite the long hours she'd put in. "He's clearly gone mad."
I nodded my head. "He wants us to proselytize, of all things," I answered, repeating myself for perhaps the third time. "Proselytize! Has he learned nothing from Sweetgrass?"
Sundew leaned up against me, warm and soft and fragrant. She was dressed only in her housecoat; both of us really should have been in bed. "Oaktree does have a point, you know," my wife observed after a time. "Not that I agree with his proposed solution, mind you. But if the Church chooses to delay, we could postpone the lawsuit settlement for who knows how long? The courts are nothing if not slow, even when not being actively encouraged to waste time. We could spin things out for, what? Five years, or maybe even longer?" She sighed and laid her head on my shoulder. "And, if our Church were to grow tenfold in that time, then we could actually afford to pay when we lost."
Almost of its own accord, my Jack Strafford found its way back to my lips. I downed a large sip before speaking again. "But... Honey, I don't have to tell you what your father thought about this sort of thing. Even if we could grow that quickly, it's wrong to encourage anyone to become a Rabbit. That's the kind of decision that has to come from within. If someone happens to get to know us and decides that he or she wants to join the Church, then we'll grow a little. If not, we won't. We demonstrate who and what we are to the world through our everyday lives, not with interviews or television ads or even doorknocking, heaven forbid! All the salesmanship in the world won't make someone a true Rabbit. That has to come from within."
"Of course," she agreed. "Proselytizing is something best left to the mystical faiths. I agree with Father wholeheartedly on that one. We don't have any faith to sell, just a way of life that we don't claim works for anybody except ourselves." My wife smiled slightly, looking very tired. "Besides, I get annoyed when I'm preached at. It's impolite to do things that annoy people; I was raised better than that." She sighed. Then there was a long silence as we each thought our own thoughts. "How'd the Board take it?" she finally asked.
I stared down into my drink for a moment, twirling the swizzle stick idly. "I think they liked the idea," I said after a very long time. "Some of them, at least. Mostly because they're terribly worried, even a little desperate."
"Mmmm," Sundew answered, shifting her position a little so as to be turned more towards me.
"Everyone's worried, of course," I continued. "And I can't fault them for that. After all, there's plenty to be afraid of. Thirty million dollars! It's a frightening figure!" I bent over and set my Strafford down on the coffee table; it was almost empty anyway. "But... They were like sheep, honey. Most of them, anyway. Ready to throw aside the Book of Peace and follow anyone who offered them a way out the first time things went wrong. Moral cowards! If Sweetgrass had seen it, he'd be spinning in his grave."
"Maybe," Sundew observed. She was hugging me now, and I'd wrapped an arm around behind her as well. "Maybe. But I think it's more likely that he'd have laughed at them. Dad always warned me when I was growing up to never expect too much of people when they're frightened, or else I was certain to be disappointed."
"He said that to me once, too. Maybe he should have put it into the Book of Peace, as well. To help us through situations like this one." I frowned. "Honey, when I spoke up and quoted Chapter Four, where it explains that seeking to make converts is wrong, most of them actually got mad at me! Only Hedgeapple stood with me, and they even got impatient with him. I never thought I'd see that!"
"Good, pure Hedgeapple," Sundew replied after a time. "Dad loved him so much." She met my eyes. "Almost as much as he loved you."
I looked away. Sweetgrass had never named a successor; there hadn't seemed to be any pressing need, really. Everyone sort of assumed that he'd be around forever. But still, he'd encouraged me to make a formal study of religion, had invited me into the very highest of councils, had sought my input and advice at every opportunity. And now relative newcomer Oaktree...
"He loved Oaktree too, don't forget," Sundew continued, touching my cheek with her forepaw and stroking it gently. Sometimes, my wife was a veritable mind-reader, just like her father had been.
I pulled away from my wife's caress. "I feel so... torn," I whispered. "Deep down inside, where it really matters. On the one hand, I know that what Oaktree wants to do is wrong for Lapism and wrong for all of us Lapists. In time, he would make us into just another publicity-seeking religion, selling our holy snake oil in competition with everyone else's. But the only way to stop him, I think, will be to have a terrible blowout on the Board. A real knock-down drag-'em-out of a fight, one so hard that it might well split the Church. Hedgeapple is the only one I can really count on, I think." I sighed. "I'm not afraid of a battle. Or even of creating a schism, so long as I'm sure that I'm in the right. And yet... And yet..." My words died away.
"And yet," Sundew finished for me, "you don't have any better answers to offer. Which you feel like you should, being one of the obvious contenders to head the Church. And because you don't have the answers you need so badly, you feel all empty and guilty inside, and begin to doubt yourself." She reached out with her paw to turn my face towards hers. "Sweetgrass was a truly great Rabbit, Silk, one who's impossible to ever even begin to live up to. If anyone ought to know, it's me. Do you have any idea of what a great gengineer my father was, long before he founded Lapism? Even now that species-merging isn't done very much anymore, half the world's other gengineering procedures utilize one or another tool or methodology which he pioneered. I still believe that part of the reason the Courts allowed Lapism to continue Changing people was because of Dad's personal integrity and professional standing." She smiled wanly. "Half of my professors treated me like a goddess while I was in school, Silk, while the other half were insanely jealous of me. Even today, it's incredibly hard to be Sweetgrass' daughter and now the head of his Clinic. People expect so much, and I expect even more of myself." She leaned forward a little, her oversized blue eyes boring deeply into my own. "You're going to find it to be every bit as hard, I suspect, to be Sweetgrass' adopted son." I blinked, but my wife did not. "Because that's what you are, you know. You don't want to accept it, but it's true enough. Deep down in your heart, you know it."
"Oaktree is leading them off of the path, Silkfur," my wife continued remorselessly. "You know it, and I know it. He's probably perfectly sincere, but that doesn't matter one whit in the greater scheme of things. He's wrong. For the sake of Lapism, it's your duty to make things right again. You'll have to find a way, or perhaps create one out of thin air if you have to. It's your duty and your sacred obligation. Big fight or no."
Sundew and I both went right to sleep that night, which was probably rather a shame given how little we were seeing of each other lately. But we'd been cut short on sleep for several weeks now. So, it was by mutual consensus that, except for a little affectionate cuddling, we were both soon passed out. I was dreaming of riding my scooter through an endless graveyard that both was and was not our Temple grounds when I realized that someone was shaking my arm. "Daddy!" Blueberry was crying, and hugging his teddy bear tight to his chest with his free arm. "Daddy! I'm scared! What are all those lights?"
"Lights?" I asked intelligently, sitting up in the darkness and blinking. Sure enough, there were glaring blue lights washing across our bedroom windows, emanating from what seemed to be dozens of police cars. Then there came a firm rapping at our door. "Mr. Rabbit?" a masculine voice called out. "Mrs. Rabbit? It's the police."
"Daddy?" Berry asked.
"Unnh?" Sundew moaned.
"The police are here," I explained to them both; Sundew sat up suddenly, and Berry hugged his bear tighter. "It's all right; I'm sure there's nothing seriously wrong." I turned to my wife. "I'll get the door if you'll stay with the boys. Berry's a little scared."
"Gotcha," she agreed, rolling out of bed as the knocking began again.
"Coming!" I called out as I threw on a robe. "Coming!" Just then, naturally enough, it was Digger's turn to wake up frightened and crying. "I'll be there in just a moment."
When I opened the door five officers were standing there, and my dazed mind was beginning to wonder just what exactly in the world was going on. "Mr. Rabbit..." one of them began. Then I heard the rapid clicking of feminine footwear approaching. It was Detective Howard rushing up.
"Get your family out of the house right away, Silkfur. Please, don't make me explain. There may not be time. Just do it!"
I'd spent many years in the Coast Guard; sudden middle-of-the-night emergencies were nothing new to me, and my reactions were still plenty sharp. "Honey!" I cried out in a voice originally designed to carry in a hurricane. "Grab the kids and clear out, now!"
But she was already coming down the hallway, carrying Digger and dragging Berry and his bear. I swept my eldest up into my arms and then followed Howard she jogged off into the darkness, all of us still pajama-clad. Berry's eyes were huge in fear, and I kissed him gently on the forehead as he trembled in my arms. Presently we came to where several officers were stretching a barrier tape across the parking lot, and there Howard finally slowed to a stop.
"What is this?" Sundew demanded, once we were finally in what appeared to be a safe place. "I mean, what on earth -- "
"Send in the dogs!" Howard ordered briskly, ignoring my wife. Then she turned and wordlessly borrowed a uniformed officer's walkie-talkie. "I've got the Rabbits out, Chief," she said. "They're safe and sound. We've also begun evacuating the rest of the complex. I doubt if there will be too much more excitement tonight."
The rest of the complex? I looked around, and sure enough there were several other pajama-ed families wandering aimlessly around the parking lot.
"Sorry," Detective Howard said, returning the walkie-talkie to its rightful owner. "I didn't mean to be impolite, but the Chief was really, really worried. And the sooner we got the dogs in, the better for everyone." She sighed and looked around the parking lot. "What a mess!"
"What's a mess?" my wife asked, displaying more patience than I could have managed.
"This whole case," the detective replied. Then she turned to me. "Do you still believe that you don't have any enemies?" she asked. "Are you quite certain?"
"None that I know of," I replied. "Why?"
Howard smiled sadly. "Because at precisely two-thirty this morning your car blew up, Mr. Rabbit. With plenty enough force to have killed your whole family, had you driven it home and parked next to your bedroom window as usual. As things turned out, it did quite a number on the parking garage back at the university; whoever our perp is, he isn't messing around. The charge was simply huge! A security guard making her rounds on the next level up was badly injured-- she may well still die -- and dozens of cars were destroyed." The detective's eyes narrowed. "People don't do this kind of thing for fun, Mr. Rabbit. Or at least in my experience they don't. It'll take my men at least half an hour to search the complex for more bombs; how about we all five of us go sit down in the laundry room together and see if we can't maybe come up with the names of at least a couple of people who just maybe might be harboring serious grudges against you and yours?"
Morning's light came far, far too early; once Detective Howard was done with us, we dragged our red-eyed offspring back into the apartment and let them sleep for a little while longer while some hasty, hard decisions were made. Then, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, we packed them up into our minivan and Sundew took off for my parents' farm, where we reckoned they would all be safe. In the meantime, though, my wife and I had agreed that I needed to stay in town and keep a close eye on Church issues despite Howard's advice that I should leave, too. Digger was very cranky indeed at having had his sleep disturbed; if my wife did not flinch from the prospect of a many-hour road trip closed in with our youngest son in his present mood, I reckoned I could certainly face the prospect of mere fiery death.
I was supposed to meet with my new thesis advisor at eight, but the entire university building containing her office was still closed as a result of the explosion of my car; the authorities were inspecting it for possible structural damage. Figuring that it was safe to assume that the meeting was therefore cancelled, I decided to try and soothe my jangling nerves a little by going out for a nice scooter ride, the weather still being excellent. Perhaps I might stop here and there to shop for a used car along the way.
It was an incredibly beautiful day despite the ugliness of the night that had preceded it. I leaned back in my comfortable seat, letting my ears flap in the wind and trying to relax. It didn't work very well. I had to make a continual, conscious effort not to squeeze my paws too tightly lest I crush the grips and ruin the throttle control. My symptoms were familiar enough; a very long time ago, in what almost seemed to be another life, I'd once boarded a foreign ship as part of my Coast Guard duties. It had seemed a routine enough affair; in fact, the whole thing had been downright boring right up until the second when my shipmates and I suddenly found ourselves in a submachine gun fight for our lives at a range of five paces, a fight from which I'd emerged the sole winner. It had taken me weeks to calm down after that had happened, and more than a little therapy. My hands had done exactly the same thing back then too, when I'd tried to ride the stress off on this very same scooter back in port. Only this time was worse. Every time my mind wandered a little, I found myself mentally emptying a whole clip on full auto directly into the shadowy face of the person who had tried to kill my wife and kids. Then reloading, and doing it again and again and again. A lot of uninformed people seem to think that we Lapists have our heads altered so extensively that we're unable to think unhappy thoughts anymore, much less shed blood. While it's true that we've been rewired a little more towards the affectionate side of things, no one who actually knew Sweetgrass at all could imagine for a minute that he'd make either himself or his followers incapable of self-defense.
Or even of self-offense, when conditions justified it. After all, real rabbits were well-equipped with teeth and claws, and used them freely when sufficiently annoyed. Why should Lapists not be granted the same rights?
I rode and rode, but somehow my scooter never found the used car lots. Instead, rather to my own astonishment, I found myself taking off my helmet in the Temple's parking lot. The place felt abandoned so early in the day; it still wasn't nine yet. Even though the sun shone and the creek gurgled and birds sang in the trees, there weren't any kids out playing. It was almost as if our Temple slept in late on weekdays. Still, there were at least some signs of human life; a roofer's van was pulled up next to the Temple building itself, and two workers were raising a ladder. Our roof leaked in several places, and I vaguely recalled voting to approve funds for a repair. Plus, there were two cars pulled up in the "No Parking" zone just outside the main entrance; we never enforced that rule except on Sundays, and even then only for a short period before and after Discussion Times. The sun was still fairly low in the sky, and I had to raise a forepaw over my eyes to shield them before I could make out exactly whose vehicles they were -- Oaktree's battered old sedan, and a rental.
My eyes narrowed as I lowered my hand. Oaktree was just about the last person I wanted to see just then. Indeed, his was one of several names I'd offered Detective Howard as a possible suspect just a few hours before; among the others were the drug gang who'd been running contraband on the ship where I'd been in the gunfight and a kid who'd beat me up in third grade. I'd even mentioned the dog on the corner of Burke and Wilson that always barked and snarled at me when I rode by on the scooter, but by then Detective Howard wasn't laughing any more. It probably hadn't been all that funny, I acknowledged, but perhaps I'd still been a bit hysterical at the time.
Not that I thought for a moment that Oaktree would stoop to such nonsense. He was a solid churchman, just like me, and every bit as committed to Lapism's future. Sure, he might have felt a little jealous, given the circumstances. And we had our disagreements. But did I really believe he was guilty? Not for a minute!
Or, at least, I thought that I didn't believe that he was guilty...
Oaktree wasn't the bomber, I just knew it; he'd even been one of the main speakers at Sweetgrass' Farewell, and had shed most convincing tears.
And yet, weren't ministers trained to cry at funerals?
There wasn't anyone in the Temple proper, so I kept right on walking down the center aisle between the two main rows of pews. Our little office and Board Room was set up in a sort of half-basement under the nave; out of boyhood habit I glanced up to the place on the wall where a crucifix had once hung behind the now-removed altar, leaving the clear mark of its passing in the form of a cross-shaped patch of unfaded paint. We'd once spent a happy Discussion Time talking about what, if anything, would be appropriate to mount on the blank wall in its place, Sweetgrass himself presiding. We'd never come to any firm conclusions. And, none of us had ever imagined that soon enough we'd have a martyr of our very own...
I shook my head, eyes tearing up yet again over his passing. Sweetgrass wouldn't have wanted his own likeness hung there -- far, far from it! The very idea went against the heart of everything Lapist. Yet, I couldn't help but wonder. If Oaktree got his way regarding proselytizing, could it be long before we were bowing down to the likeness of a dead Rabbit every Sunday? I swung behind the curtain and descended the stairs on soft-furred feet. "...in some ways not as major an adjustment as it appears," Oaktree was explaining. "As Sweetgrass himself pointed out so many times, we Rabbits are still mostly human inside. He thought pretty highly of human-people too, you know."
"Uh-huh," the other voice responded, and instantly I recognized the sound. It was Derrick Volk, the reporter that Sundew was going to Change in a few days. If she was back in business by then, that was. "He believed that the true blessing lay in the merger of the best characteristics of both."
"Right," Oaktree continued, and I could easily picture the big Rabbit smiling. It was standard procedure to sit down and talk frankly and openly with a new convert several times before his or her big day. "Your brain will be altered; that's part of what makes this whole thing work. But not so terribly much. You probably won't even notice, at first. And even when you do, you'll see that the alterations are minor things, really. For example, you'll find the scent of your fellow Lapists to be reassuring, even calming."
That was true enough, I knew. Very likely, the desire for exactly that sort of reassurance and comfort was why I'd unconsciously driven to the Temple in the first place.
"Right," Derrick agreed. "I'm rather looking forward to that one."
"We group-snuggle sometimes after Discussions, you know," Oaktree continued. "Physical contact becomes more important; touching is very much a part of how Rabbits socialize. Lapism is about the family in all its many forms, including the family of Rabbithood. This is also why we all share the same last name."
"That one really confuses outsiders," Derrick observed. "A lot of very bright people feel that you're taking a step backwards into totemism, not a step forward into a transhumanist future."
"Maybe we are heading backwards," Oaktree replied frankly. "How could we tell? The main thing, though, is that we're happy, and that justifies everything in our own minds. Still, I expect that you'll have many fascinating insights. I'm looking forward very much to reading your articles."
I felt like a heel standing out in the hall and eavesdropping. Nor did I really want to talk to Oaktree. But I found that I also didn't really want to be alone, either. So, finally, I scratched at the door.
"That's another thing," Oaktree explained as he pushed his chair back. "Our forepaws are much too soft to be of much use in knocking on doors. Though they're much more dexterous than they look. Unless of course you elected for full hands?"
"Oh, no!" Derrick explained. "I've heard about how easily fingers get broken when running on all fours, and --"
Just then the door swung open, and Oaktree stuck his head out. "Oh!" he declared, eyes going wide in shock. "Oh dear Lord!"
Clearly Oaktree had seen the morning paper. "We're all right," I explained, even though the news reports had made that perfectly clear. "No one's been hurt, save for that poor security guard. Sundew and the kids are headed somewhere safe. I'm staying here."
"Oh..." Oaktree said again, mouth still hanging wide open. Then suddenly his huge, bearlike arms were wrapped around me in the tightest hug I'd ever known. "Oh!" he repeated. "I was so worried! We were all so worried!"
"Me too!" Derrick declared from a little further away. He seemed to feel a little left out, so I pulled away from Oaktree a little and hugged him, as well. It wasn't quite the same, but soon enough he'd come to see what he was missing. Then Oak was speaking again.
"I couldn't believe it when I heard! I mean, it was so brutal and savage! And after Sweetgrass..." A single tear rolled down the Rabbit's black-and-white dabbled cheek, and suddenly I felt deeply ashamed at having ever doubted him.
"We're all right," I repeated. "My car's gone, but other than that, well... We got off very lucky."
"I'll say!" Derrick repeated. He readjusted his ear-hat from the hug and smiled again.
"Very lucky indeed!" Oaktree agreed. Then he smiled. "I'm so glad that Sundew and the kids are going to be safe." He cocked his head to one side. "But why are you staying here, Silk, when it's so dangerous for you? Surely you could work on your thesis from somewhere else. Or even get an extension. I'm sure, under the circumstances, that your advisors would agree."
I pressed my lips together and looked down at the ground. "I'm not staying for the thesis," I explained. "I'm staying because I think the Board needs me just now." Then I looked up again, directly into Oaktree's eyes despite the fact that he was a full head taller than me. "I'm staying because I think you're wrong about a lot of things, Oaktree. I don't intend to leave until I'm sure that the Board understands the importance of Sweetgrass' vision and ideals. Even more, I don't intend to leave town no matter what the danger until I'm quite certain that the Board has the courage to live up to them."
A few minutes later, Oaktree and I were alone in the Boardroom. Derrick had departed gracefully, reporter or no, and I began to agree with my wife that perhaps he might make a fine Rabbit someday after all. But that was all for the future; right now, all that mattered was Oaktree and me.
"Some juice?" Oaktree offered, swinging open the door of the ancient refrigerator he'd dug up somewhere for the Temple's use. Inside was a plain bagged lunch, I could see, and a large bottle of some sort of purple liquid; grape juice, I realized suddenly from the aroma.
"Yes, thank you," I replied. Scootering dries a body out, even one that sweats as little as does a lapine. "That's very kind of you."
"Don't mention it." We kept plastic cups in one of the filing cabinets; Oaktree pulled out a pair and filled them, then passed one over. I sipped at mine; it was good juice, I decided. Very good. Then, finally, Oaktree spoke again. "You know," he said slowly. "This is long overdue."
"Maybe," I answered him. "And maybe not. We had to get past the mourning first."
The big black-and-white Rabbit nodded. "Which took you a little longer than it did me, naturally enough." He sipped at his juice again. "You two were terribly close."
I nodded. "Closer than most biological fathers and sons, I suspect."
"That makes things harder still, in some ways," Oaktree observed, sighing. For a long time he simply stared down into his juice, then he looked up and met my eyes. "Our Church is in terrible trouble. There's never been a more crucial time in our history, and I dare say there will probably never be another crisis more dire in our future. It won't help at all if you and I can't agree on how to deal with it."
Well, I thought to myself. That was direct enough. "You're not blind," I countered. "Nor are you stupid." I leaned back and crossed my arms, lowering my ears as if for a fight. "There's got to be a Book of Peace lying around the Temple somewhere. Shall we open it up and read the parts referring to proselytizing together?"
"No," Oaktree admitted, staring down into his juice again. Idly he swirled it around in his cup. "No, you don't have to do that. I acknowledge everything you say; you're absolutely right in that Sweetgrass would never approve of trying to actively sell non-Lapists on our way of life." He sipped calmly at his drink. "But Sweetgrass, for all his wisdom, was wrong about a lot of other things, too. He wasn't a god, you know. He made mistakes. His word isn't holy writ, and the Book of Peace, while a beautiful thing and a work of great significance, isn't divinely inspired. He'd be the first to acknowledge this, if he were here."
I pressed my lips together, making my whiskers bristle. "He was easily the wisest of any of us."
"True," Oaktree agreed, still toying with his drink. "But not omniscient; that's all I'm saying." He looked up at me again. "You also need to keep in mind that he never actually had to face a crisis of this magnitude. Lapism does not exist in a vacuum, you know. It's part of a vastly-complex human world filled to the brim with intrigue and jealousy and lies, all competing to ruin anything and everything that presumes to be innocent or pure." He sighed. "I'm a lot older than you are, Silkfur. In fact, though you may not realize it I'm also a lot older than Sweetgrass was. In a long enough life, you learn that sometimes you have to give up ground in some areas in order to gain it back in others. Compromise is inevitable. It's usually far better to embrace and accept the fact up front rather than go into denial and lose everything over what in the greater scheme of things may be a relatively minor issue."
I leaned back in my chair and stroked my chin. "So you are of the opinion that our prohibition against proselytizing is a minor thing, then?"
"In the greater scheme of things, yes," Oaktree answered, nodding. "Compared to the possible extinction of Lapism altogether, definitely."
I shook my head. "Sweetgrass wouldn't agree, I don't think. He always felt that the Christian injunction to proselytize was evidence of the nagging little doubt that lurks at the back of the mind of every follower of the mystical faiths. We don't face such doubts, because we offer no insights beyond that which can easily be either experienced or proven. He told me once, after about three beers, that when a Christian proselytizes, he or she is simply seeking to assuage their own misgivings by persuading another that the seemingly-impossible is true after all. If they make a convert, the truth of their faith is reaffirmed and their own doubts fade." I smiled. "At least for a time."
Oaktree's mouth formed a thin, hare-lipped line. "That," he said slowly, "borders upon the offensive."
"To a Christian, perhaps," I allowed. "I'd never have repeated it, save that circumstances force my hand." I frowned again. "Your Christianity is your own business, Oaktree. Truly, it is. But I won't allow you to overturn what I believe is one of our most important values, not while there's a breath left in my body. This isn't just because Sweetgrass said so; you're correct when you point out that he was capable of error. It's because I agree with him with all my heart and soul. It's wrong to go out and try and talk people into altering their body and undergoing all the other changes that follow. Even worse, it's undignified. If you want to seek converts, that's all well and good. Convert them to Christianity, though, if you would be so kind. Not to Lapism. We Rabbits don't do that sort of thing. Instead, we set an example, and let nature take its course. Salesmanship and publicity and growth-targets are beneath us."
Oaktree was frowning now, too. "All right," he growled. "All right, Mister Holier-Than-Thou! You go right ahead. Tell me. What's your plan for surviving this lawsuit, then? Go ahead, explain it all! In detail, please. I've got all day!"
It was my turn to look down into my juice. "I don't have one," I admitted. "Not yet. But we've still got time. Maybe something will come up."
Oaktree raised his arms theatrically and addressed an invisible audience. "'Maybe something will come up,' he says. 'Maybe something will come up'." He looked at me and cocked his head first to one side, and then the other. "Is this how you'd protect Sweetgrass' legacy? Is this what you're going to let all his hard work, the essence of his life, come down to?" He shook his head and waved a dismissive forepaw at me. "Silkfur, you're a very good young man. Bright, hardworking, good-hearted, honest, loving, gentle, a damned fine Rabbit overall. You even bear the seeds of true wisdom, and heaven knows that's a rare gift. Sweetgrass was clearly grooming you to become his successor, and I'll acknowledge that someday you're likely to become worthy of him. But someday isn't today." His eyes narrowed. "You've got no real-world experience in running a church, much less an entire religion." He waved his arms around him, indicating the Temple and its grounds. "Who takes care of all this, son? Who shows up for the workmen, and cuts the grass, and paints the walls, and never asks for so much as a thank you, much less a single dime of compensation?"
"You do," I admitted. "All of that. We couldn't run this place without you, and all of us know it. Our physical plant -- "
"-- is just the beginning!" Oaktree snapped, cutting me off. "Who takes calls from Temple members in the middle of the night, when they're all alone and one of life's problems looks too big for them to handle by themselves? Who spends half his days trudging back and forth between our congregation-members' houses, checking in on the sick and comforting the bereaved and counseling the uncertain? Who plans out at least half of our Discussion themes, now that Sweetgrass is gone, and somehow also finds time to sponsor a Teen Rabbit group on Tuesdays?" He shook his head. "Son, I'll grant that Lapism isn't Christianity, not by a long shot. But Lapism is profoundly affected by Christianity nonetheless, whether you and Sweetgrass like it or no! Our society has come to expect certain things from a religious faith, and therefore from a religious leader. Things that you simply don't have the training or time or perhaps even the temperament to offer. Our culture has a sort of hole built into it that a religion simply must match up to, if it is to succeed, and the only thing that will fill one certain part of that hole is a person who plays the part of minister or priest or rabbi." He looked me up and down. "And right now, at least, you're not him."
I turned away again. "I have a thesis to write," I began. "Sweetgrass himself was the one who talked me into going back to school. It's what he wanted. Plus, I have a family. Two small children --"
"Exactly!" Oaktree exclaimed, stamping his foot in emphasis. "Exactly! I don't blame you for not carrying your share, Silk. Not by half! I hardly see my wife anymore, and if my kids were still at home I'd have to put their welfare first, too." He smiled. "Sweetgrass put me on the Board for a reason, Silk. Never doubt that. And that reason was because I'm an experienced clergyman. It's a learned skill, you see, a profession as difficult to master as any other. He brought me in because I know what I'm doing, where the rest of you are blundering about in the dark. Even Sweetgrass didn't want to buy the Temple, you may recall. It took me months to convince him that a congregation needs a focal point. Yet in the end, aren't we glad that we went ahead and made the purchase?"
"Yes," I admitted. "But --"
"No buts!" Oaktree interrupted me for the second time. "I know what I'm doing, Silk, and I know the right direction to take us in. So help me Jesus, I do! And this is all so terribly, terribly important; more important than I think any of us except maybe Sweetgrass himself has grasped."
I leaned forward. "How so?"
"Christianity is dying," he replied simply. "And it has been for decades. God help us, Nietzsche was right about some things. I know that Lapism is not supposed to be a substitute for Christianity, and I'd be committing heresy in two faiths if I tried to claim that it was. But the two paths are largely parallel, I think. They're both paths of peace and love, and what got me kicked out of my old pulpit was claiming that if Lapism introduced a little more peace and love into the human soul, then it was probably a good thing." He sighed. "Sweetgrass would kill me for saying this, and I freely admit that. But I think that the Lord sent him to us to help us along the way to Godly righteousness and the Peace of Christ. That he was an agnostic himself, well..." He shrugged. "God works in mysterious ways, they say. At any rate, in my heart I know that Lapism is a giant spiritual step forward for mankind, the kind that comes along once in a millennium, or perhaps even less often. It may be exactly what's needed to return Christianity itself to the fore. And I honestly believe in my heart that I was put here to be the right Rabbit at the right place at the right time to shepherd our movement through its most trying times and on into an unlimited future."
"Well..." I said after a long silence, rising to my feet. "That's that, then."
"What do you mean?" Oaktree asked, standing up as well.
"I mean, that's that." Moving very slowly, I downed the last delicious sip of Oaktree's grape juice, and licked my whiskers. "That was very good. Thank you." Then I turned to leave.
"Wait a minute!" Oaktree said as I stepped towards the door. "Please? Surely we can work this out between us. I like you very much, Silk. This isn't some kind of personal contest."
I stopped, then slowly turned. "And I still respect you too, Oaktree," I answered. "I believe that everything you just said to me reflects exactly how you honestly think and feel. And because of it, this Church is going to have to split, effective right now. Those who want to follow a more traditional religious path can go with you, and the rest can stay with Sundew and me. We'll keep the Clinic facilities, of course; they belong to Sundew personally. She and I discussed this possibility before she left town with the kids, and my wife stands one-hundred-percent with me." I smiled very slightly. "You can keep the Temple, however many of the Board you can persuade to follow, and probably most of what little we have in the Treasury." I sighed. "The lawyers will decide who gets to keep the lawsuit, I suppose. Though there's plenty of time for us to fight over that. I'm afraid that we probably will."
Oaktree's eyes went big and round. "I... But..."
"You'll find someone else willing to do your gene-splicing for you, I'm sure," I continued. "It'll cost a lot more for you to Change a convert, though. And I suppose that my little group will have to go back to holding Discussions in a rented union hall." I sighed and looked around one last time at the very plain underpinnings of the Temple. "I'll miss this place. Honestly, I will. You did a good thing, Oaktree, persuading us to buy it."
"B-b-b-b..." the big bunny stuttered. "B-B-But neither half will be able to s-s-survive alone. It'll be imp-p-possible!"
I turned around and placed my hands on my hips. "Oaktree," I said gently. "There's nothing harder to kill than an idea whose time has come, and I believe with all my heart and soul that Lapism, unsullied and pure, is an idea whose time is today. So long as we remain true to Sweetgrass' entire vision and don't compromise our standards in the name of expediency or convenience, all will be well with us. Sure, we might go bankrupt. We probably will, even. But there will still be Rabbits after the bankruptcy, and we Rabbits will still have the Book of Peace, intact and pure. This is all we really need. If we do things your way, we'll still have Rabbits, yes. And probably lots and lots of Temples; I respect you enough to believe that you can probably meet your conversion goals. But the Book of Peace will have been compromised, and with it our whole reason for being. There will be schism after schism, until there are a thousand kinds of Lapism. And Sweetgrass would not recognize a single one of them!" I looked down at the floor, then met Oaktree's eyes one last time. "I'll see you at the next Board meeting," I said. "Bring your heaviest artillery, Oaktree Fisher-Of-Men. You're going to need it."
And then I spun on my heel and walked out.
It still wasn't much after noon when I stepped back out into the sunshine; a child wearing the ears-and-tail was trying to launch a kite out on the open part of the Temple grounds despite the complete absence of wind. I stopped to watch for a minute or two a he dashed to and fro, pulling his toy after him. The world was a better and happier place for the boy and his fragile bit of brightly-colored plastic, I decided. And that made all his endless running back and forth worthwhile, even if didn't otherwise accomplish much. Finally he fell down in the grass, huffing and puffing and laughing for no reason at all, and I put on my helmet and climbed back aboard my scooter. I was going to miss the Temple and especially its playground a lot, I decided. Still, I felt free and clean inside, somehow, as if I'd just passed some kind of test.
And, best of all, I wasn't picturing myself emptying submachine clips into anyone's head anymore.
I still didn't have anywhere in particular to go, but the University wasn't far away, and I sort of found myself heading in that direction. Partly, I wanted to see the damage caused by the blast; I was as curious as the next man, after all. And, partly, I was responding to a deep stab of guilt. Oaktree had just reminded me that he'd been doing the lion's share of our congregation's sick-bed visiting, and last night a security guard had been badly hurt by a bomb intended to kill me and my family. Indeed, she might even be dead, and somehow I'd never bothered to find out anything about her. If the guard was indeed still alive, chances were that she was now in the University hospital. It was a good thing to visit the sick, according to most ethical traditions, and Sweetgrass had agreed that it was indeed proper behavior to offer support to the weak and ill. After all, how could it not be? The least I could do while I was in the neighborhood would be to stick my nose in and offer good wishes.
I was surprised at how little visible damage there was to the parking garage when I arrived on campus. From what Detective Howard had described, I'd expected to find cars thrown about everywhere and great gaping holes blown in the concrete. But except for a pair of flatbed wreckers parked out front with the badly-crushed remains of two vehicles loaded onto each of them and a large crack running down one wall, everything looked pretty normal; I'd never have guessed there'd been a bombing at all if I hadn't known. The main giveaway was the terrible, terrible traffic jam centered on the University grounds; suddenly, there was a huge shortage of parking places. It would have been absolute hell to find a slot had I been driving a car, but I'd parked my scooter in the bicycle rack many times over the years, and no one had ever complained. So I hopped the curb and rode across a tiny lawn in order to avoid being stuck behind the endlessly-circling queue of cars, hung my helmet from the handlebars, and strode into the hospital building.
"Silk!" the white-clad lady sitting behind the Admissions desk called out, jumping to her feet. She spread her arms for a hug, and I gave her one. "Oh, Silk! Thank God you and the kids and everyone are all right!"
"We're all just fine, Louise," I answered, patting her reassuringly on the back. Everyone knew my wife, of course, and the staff delighted in spoiling my little bunnies rotten. "We're all just fine. Sundew's headed out of town with Berry and Digger right now."
Louise nodded and stepped back; I was surprised to see that there were actual tear-streaks on her face. "It's so horrid!" she declared. "You Rabbits never hurt anyone! Sweetgrass was the most lovable old bunny anyone ever knew. And now... now..."
Suddenly another tear started down her cheek, and I reached out and hugged her again. "It's all right," I repeated. "Everything's going to be all right. The police are going to take care of everything."
She finally pulled away, clearly feeling a little better. "How about you?" she asked searchingly. "How come you're not headed out of town?"
"I have some Church business to take care of," I answered. "The kind that can't wait." Then I smiled. "Speaking of which, I understand someone got hurt in the bombings?"
Louise was nothing if not well-connected. In fifteen seconds flat, I knew that Marjorie Davis had suffered severe internal injuries in the blast, but was now expected to make a full recovery and recuperating in Room 209. "But she's heavily sedated," Marjorie explained. "And her family has restricted visitation. I'm sure they'd approve you if they knew, but..."
"Right," I agreed, nodding sadly. I started to thank Louise and leave, then stopped myself. Since I was at the hospital anyway... "I hate to bother you any more," I said slowly. "But there's someone else that I maybe owe a visit to, as well. Can you find out for me what room Rhododendron Snuggler Rabbit is in? And if her visitation is restricted?"
I felt rather ashamed of myself during the elevator trip up to the fifteenth floor; why I'd never come to visit Rhododendron before, I couldn't quite say. Though it probably had something to do with the thesis and the kids and my classes and my Board duties and...
I sighed as the door slid open on the fifteenth floor, and looked around for a sign to direct me to Room 1512. I'd never been on the fifteenth floor before; Sundew's Clinic patients were normally cared for on the seventh, and the layout was a bit different higher in the building. The fifteenth floor proved to be a quiet, morbid place dedicated to severe brain injuries. No one so much as smiled at me as I walked down the hall reading nameplates. Finally, back in the far corner I came to right place. Laying immobile on a barely-wrinkled bed lay a white doe Rabbit, eyes open and staring.
"Hello?" I said absently as I passed the threshold, as much out of habit as anything else. Rhododendron was brain-dead, I knew, and far beyond hearing mortal voices.
"She's gone, you know," a deep voice said from behind me.
I almost leapt through the ceiling in shock. It was a male nurse; his name was Lester, I could see from his name tag. "I... Uh... I just came by to visit. She's of my Church. My name is Silkfur."
"Of course," Les replied, nodding gravely. "I know your wife. We all do." He stepped over to where poor, helpless Rhododendron lay and closed her eyelids for her. "It's just a muscle cramp that does that sometimes," he explained. "A Rabbit thing. Not human. If we leave them open, they'll be damaged."
"Right," I agreed vaguely. There was a vase beside the patient's bed. I carefully stuffed the flowers I'd purchased down in the lobby into it, then added water from a little sink.
"Those are very nice," Les observed. "This poor lady doesn't get nearly enough of them. The only other people that ever come to visit are her father and another Rabbit named Oaktree. And her dad was only here once that I know of."
I pressed my lips together, suddenly feeling very guilty. "There's no hope at all?" I asked.
"None," Les answered. "In truth, I think it would be far more merciful to pull the feeding tube. But I'm not the one responsible for her. Soon they're going to move her to a long-term care facility, and I won't be involved any more at all." He raised his eyebrows. "I'm curious. What does your faith have to say about this kind of thing? When someone's stuck between life and death?"
"Nothing," I replied truthfully. "Nothing at all." I sighed. "The night that everything went wrong, my wife cried for hours, and Sweetgrass came over and drank half my whiskey. They felt terrible about it. She's the only patient that either one of them ever lost."
Les nodded. "I can certainly understand that. Not that there's any reason why they should feel guilty. It wasn't their fault, you know. There wasn't anything in the world they could have done differently."
I looked Les in the eye. He seemed a nice enough young man, and was probably familiar with the case. "To be completely honest with you, neither Sweetgrass nor Sundew ever really explained to me what happened. And I've never asked, because every time the subject came up they both got so upset. Do you know?"
He nodded. "Of course. We all do, here." For the first time, he smiled slightly, though the expression vanished almost as soon as it was born. "We're fascinated by you Rabbits, Silkfur. Anything that has anything to do with Lapists is the very hottest gossip around." I smiled back, and then he continued. "Like I said, Sundew and Sweetgrass did everything right. But there's an awful lot involved in transforming a living organism into something else without killing it, and humans are no exceptions. You may recall having given what probably seemed like a gallon of blood before you were Changed?"
I nodded. "It takes a lot. When we Changed Berry and Digger we had to have it drawn several times over a period of weeks. Otherwise, it might have made them ill or even killed them."
"Right," Les agreed, smiling again. "They came out so well, too. Cute as pins, both of them! And Berry's so sweet-tempered. He almost tempts me to convert, that one does. It's positively unnatural for a kid to be that good. It makes me wonder if you people maybe aren't quite so crazy as you at first appear to be." The smile faded. "Anyway, the reason that so much blood is required for the Change is that there are so very many tests that have to be run. Even though most of them only require a few cc's, the sheer volume of tests is amazing. The printout, I'm told, is much bigger than our local phone book, and done up in finer print to boot." Les shook his head and looked down. "Of course, nothing in life is perfect. Every single one of those tests can come back with an erroneous result."
I nodded. Sweetgrass had been cursing the 'god-damned tests' when he'd finally let me put him to bed. "So the lab made a mistake?"
"No," Les answered. "It's not quite that simple. Most of the really crucial tests are run multiple times, and with most of the others even if they come back wrong the gengineer in charge can manipulate things so that the patient comes out fine anyway. Gengineering someone is actually an incredibly safe procedure; if it weren't so expensive, it would probably be about the only form of medicine actively practiced anymore. That, and trauma work. ER stuff."
"So my wife says," I agreed. Then I nodded at poor Rhododendron. "But clearly, something went wrong this time."
"Yes," Les agreed, looking very, very sad. "During the brain work, an artificial neurotransmitter must be used. Only one suitable compound has ever been developed for the purpose, and for theoretical reasons that lie far above my head -- ask your wife if you want to know more -- I'm told it's unlikely that a substitute will ever be found. A very, very few humans are intolerant of this substance. Of those few, an even tinier percentage will give a false reading indicating that the intolerance is not present." He looked down at his patient. "Poor Flower here -- that's what she wanted her nickname to be, according to Oaktree -- is one of them." He sighed and looked down at the floor. "The result of using this compound on a sensitive individual is invariably brain death."
I shook my head; somehow, I now felt sadder than ever. "And there was no way to know?" I asked softly.
"None," Lester agreed. "Unless the patient is very lucky. The sensitivity is usually hereditary. If either of the parents are sensitive, we never put a patient into the Tank unless it's life-or-death anyway. Certainly never for optional procedures like becoming a full Lapist." He frowned. "I guess her father never told her. And she probably didn't know to ask."
"What do you mean, 'never told her'?" Suddenly, my heart was beating a little faster.
Lester's eyebrows rose. "Flower's father is missing a leg," he explained. "He said that it was because of a lab accident; he's a chemistry professor over at the community college." The nurse shook his head. "And there's other scarring too, all over his face at the very least. He must obviously be sensitive to the artificial neurotransmitter as well, or else he'd have been put into a new body long since."
Riding the elevator down to the lobby felt like standing on a wet sponge, and the sensation didn't really go away even after I stepped out into the corridor. If anyone waved or spoke to me as I walked towards the lobby, I surely didn't see or hear them. My mind was completely abuzz, looking at things from a whole new angle. Rhododendron's father was a chemist, presumably capable of making his own dynamite? A chemist who had good reason to hold a grudge against gengineering in general? And our Church in particular? And, most of all, had reason to hate Sweetgrass and Sundew personally? I'd mentioned the lawsuit to Detective Howard, of course, and I presumed that she'd investigated the plaintiff. But did she know that the victim's father had apparently failed to pass on vital health-related information to his daughter, and probably was having a damned hard time living with the fact?
I pulled out my cellphone to call the police. "You can't use that in here, Mr. Rabbit," a young man in scrubs observed. "The whole hospital's got a jammer setup. Except for the main lobby; you can usually get a signal there."
I nodded and walked down another long corridor. Sure enough, as I entered the lobby I picked up a signal once more. Even as the little green light came on, however, my phone began to ring. It was Sundew, I could tell from the tune being played.
"Hello?" I answered, stopping by the main doors.
"Silk!" my wife cried out, sounding near tears. "Silk! Where are you?"
"At the University hospital," I replied. "Visiting someone. What's wrong, honey? Is everything okay?"
But she didn't answer. Instead I heard crackling and rustling, as if the phone were being handed to someone. "At the hospital, eh?" a male voice answered. There was a very slight pause, and then the man spoke again. "You're five-point-eight miles from Riverside Park, Silkfur. I certainly hope that you know the way out to Arbor Island, because if you're not here in eight minutes you'll never see your wife and kids again. Leave the phone on, so that I know you're not calling anyone else and so that I can listen in to what's going on. If I so much as smell a cop, everyone dies. You got that?"
"I've got it," I answered, my voice a near snarl. "Now you get this. You touch one hair on their heads, and I'll waste everything and everyone you've ever loved, motherfucker, if takes everything I've got and all the rest of my days. Do we understand each other?"
"Perfectly," the voice replied, seemingly unperturbed. "You now have seven minutes and fifty seconds. Don't you think you'd better get a move on?"
I snarled one last time into the phone, then shoved it into my pocket, still activated as demanded. Then I was down on all fours, running just as fast as I possibly could for my scooter. Rabbits generally don't go quadrupedal among non-Lapists; it tends to unduly upset them. But there wasn't any time for normal walking! "Hey!" one man complained as I ran him off the sidewalk, and then a few feet later a lady opened a car door up in front of me and nearly killed us both. At the last second I leapt over her raised window, clearing it by mere millimeters. Then I was at my scooter and fumbling to put my helmet on.
"Silk!" a familiar voice called out. "Silkfur! What's the matter?"
I turned my head, awkward forepaws still blindly fumbling with the helmet strap. It was Oaktree, of all people, carrying a bouquet of flowers in each hand. "It's an emergency, Oaktree," I answered, mindful of the open phone line in my pocket. "Please, just leave me alone, all right?" I continued trying to free up the recalcitrant strap, but it was stuck firm! "Go visit your sick people. This is none of your concern."
His head tilted first to the left, then to the right while I kept tugging at the helmet's buckle. I was trying to go too fast, I realized, and only making things worse. "All right, Silk," he answered, hurt evident in his voice. Then he looked down at the pavement and began walking slowly towards the main entrance. "I understand."
I scowled fiercely, wishing that I could have said or done something else. But there wasn't any time to spare! The damned helmet strap still wouldn't come undone, so finally I tossed the whole damned thing into the bushes and started the motor. The bike was pretty heavy for a scooter; I had to stutter-step it backwards and turn off to the right to clear the bike rack. As I did so I stepped on something hard; it was a fist-sized chunk of concrete, probably blown there as the result of last night's bombing. On an impulse I reached down and swept the thing up into my pants pocket; it didn't take a second, and I wasn't likely to come across even such a poor weapon again.
Then I scowled a second time, revved up my motor and darted across the lot to the blaring of a hundred horns, determined not to lose another second and willing to violate every traffic law and custom known to mankind along the way.
The expressway isn't any faster than surface streets if you're willing to drive ninety miles an hour in thirty miles per hour zones and ignore niceties like red lights. I demonstrated this surprisingly under-appreciated fact to myself and many others as I rode balls-out for Riverside Park. The deadline I'd been given was ridiculously short given current traffic and road conditions, but there weren't any options. Though gengineered reflexes help while driving, it was more luck than bio-enhancement that got me through several major intersections! Once a police car pulled out of a lane of stopped traffic and tried to pull me over, but I lost him by pulling into a cemetery and riding right down a row of graves. His car probably would have fit between the headstones, but he didn't try it. There wasn't a patrol car in sight when I squeezed out between the hedges on the other side, motor roaring, and by then I was practically at the park.
Riverside Park was located, predictably enough, down in a river valley and was therefore very prone to flooding. It had been made into a recreation area largely because the land was unsuited for anything else. The park was neither particularly attractive, consisting largely of acre after acre of flat, marshy woodland, nor very well-trafficked. I never saw another human being once I flashed between the twin stone monuments that marked the entrance; for all the traffic there was, I might as well have been miles out in the country.
The park's main road was paved with pea-gravel, laced with frequent ruts. The surface was absolute hell for a scooter-rider, and despite my terrible need to hurry I had to slow down to a crawl until the forest opened up near the little wooden causeway which ran out to Arbor Island. There I swung onto the well-manicured grass and twisted my throttle wide open, hitting the planks of the bridge itself at perhaps seventy miles an hour. Arbor Island was a small place, named for a stand of fruit trees long grown wild. For just an instant I thought I glimpsed a face looking out through the trees at me, and then it was gone.
The road changed back to rutted gravel at the end of the bridge; I braked hard, feeling the sickening sensation of the front wheel skidding a little on the treacherous surface. I didn't go down, though at one point I had the handlebars turned right while the scooter itself drifted slightly to the left. Then I rounded the last corner...
...and saw my wife's minivan sitting in the middle of a little clearing, two fenders crushed in. There was a chain loosely wrapped around the outside, padlocked in place so that none of the doors would open, and the hood was up. Sundew was sitting in the driver's seat, handcuffed to the wheel and looking terrified, while Berry sat alongside her calmly running his toy truck up and down the passenger window; I could almost hear his "Brrrroooom!" My son caught sight of me and smiled real big, then waved. Feeling very helpless indeed, I raised a weak arm and waved back.
"Don't turn around," a voice said from behind me. "Get off the bike. Very slowly."
I nodded in acknowledgement, meeting Sundew's eyes. Then, as directed, I slowly lowered the kickstand and stepped off.
"Good," the voice continued. "Very good. Now, turn around. Slowly."
Again I did what I was told, though I had to tear my eyes away from Sundew and the kids. Somehow, I didn't think I'd ever get to see them again. When I was done, I was facing a heavily-scarred man with a huge revolver in one hand and a little box in the other.
"My name's Ken," the man said. "Ken MacDounough. Kathy's dad."
"I know," I answered shortly. "I'd just figured it out when you called. Just like the police are going to do any minute now, I'm sure."
"Probably," the man replied. "It doesn't matter. I never figured to get away with it, you see. The cops were at my house this morning, but I saw them as I drove up. So I just went on around the block, not even slowing down. They didn't notice a thing. Then I came out to finish things at your place, and guess who pulled out into traffic right ahead of me? I couldn't have asked for better." He sighed and held up the little box. "This is a dead-man's switch," he explained. "There's forty pounds of dynamite under your van. If I let go of the button, it goes up."
"I'm not going to play games, Silkfur," he continued. "Your wife and father-in-law... Hell, your religion killed my daughter --"
"That's a lie," I interrupted evenly. "You killed your daughter, when you didn't tell her that she might be sensitive to one of the chemicals used in gengineering." I paused and looked the bomber straight in the eyes. "Why didn't you let her know, MacDounough? Why?"
A sort of spasm passed across his face; with all the scarring it was hard to tell, but it might have been a grimace of pain. "To spare her, I thought. For as long as possible." He sighed. "Have you any idea what it's like, Silkfur, to live in a world where everyone is perfectly healthy but you? Where the gengineers have godlike powers and make miracles every day, for everyone but you? A world where you're going to get sick and old and die, but no one else is?" He shook his head. "She was only twenty-two, Silk. I would have told her, eventually. But I wanted her to laugh and smile and enjoy life for a while, first. If I'd known that she was about to convert to your silly pseudo-religion..."
His words tailed off, but I couldn't really find anything to say. "Killing us won't fix anything," I finally offered. "Nothing will change, except that more innocent people will die, and you'll have more blood on your hands, and the tragedy will grow even more terrible than it is now." I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. "My kids," I whispered. "What have they ever done to you? They aren't even in school yet, for God's sake."
"Nothing," Ken replied calmly. "Nothing at all. Which is why I've worked so hard to make it quick and painless for them. For all of you. Even for Sweetgrass, you'll note. He never knew what hit him, I sincerely hope. For that matter, Silk, you haven't done anything to me either, personally. But this has got to be a clean sweep; it simply has to be. Blood demands blood." He half-smiled. "I used to think that was barbarous, until I lost a loved one. Now, I finally understand that it's simply a fundamental law of the universe. Another reaction that has to be balanced." He raised his gun. "Now, Silk, I've promised to make it as easy on you as possible; I'm no sadist. Would you rather me shoot you now, or do you want to go stand up next to the van for a couple minutes?"
I stood for perhaps an entire minute in silence. MacDounough was standing a good thirty feet away, and he looked as if he knew how to handle a gun. There was a rock in my pocket, sure, but I'd never dig it out and throw before being gunned down. And once I was dead, then... then...
"Come on," MacDounough urged. "Unless being a coward is part of your faith, too?" He sighed. "I thought better of you people than this."
There wasn't any way out, I was beginning to realize. None at all. I was going to die, Sundew was going to die, the kids were going to die... "Let me go up to the van," I choked out. "Let me be with them."
"All right," the bomber replied. "That's doable. Go ahead. Turn around and start walking that way. Slowly. I'll have you covered every step."
Every step, his flat, emotionless voice echoed in my head. Every step. I gulped, then turned and began walking. My eyes were tearing up; I couldn't see my family at all; they were just blurs. That was hardly fair! My mind began racing again. Think! Think! Think! it demanded. Think! But try though I might, there wasn't anything to think about, save the bomb, and the dead-man's switch, and Berry and Digger...
"Move!" Mac Dounough demanded, limping after me on his prosthetic leg. "I didn't mean that slow!"
Suddenly a surge of anger rose up inside of me, a surge of anger deeper and more profound than I'd ever imagined such a fragile vessel as a mere mortal body could ever possibly contain. I felt my face screw itself up into a rictus of rage, and stopped dead in my tracks. "Fuck you," I replied, turning to face my captor. I still had a rock, by God, and I wasn't marching to my death with even the slightest hope unrealized. "Fuck you!"
He smiled slightly, and began to raise the gun. Instantly I went for the rock, even though I knew who had to win. Good-bye, Sundew, a little voice whispered in my brain. Know that I defended you, even to the very end.
Just then something big and furry exploded into motion from the brush off to MacDounough's left. Apparently the movement caught his eye, because the heavy gun paused in mid-swing, then began to reverse itself...
...just as I cleared the rock from my pocket and sidearmed it into Mac Dounough's torso, driving it home with gengineered strength and reflexes. "Oof!" he said, doubling over at the blow. In seeming slow motion the gun continued its deadly arc, however, firing once with a flat, hard, magnum-level report. Then MacDounough lost his balance completely, the dead-man's switch shifting in his hand even as I watched helplessly, wrong-footed from my throw. No!, I tried to scream, though the words wouldn't come. No! Don't let it happen like this! Let me die too!
Then the furry blur resolved itself into big, burly Oaktree, who was dashing up on all fours. He flinched a little as the shot rang out, but at the last second altered his headlong blitz-like rush into a mugger's snatch-and-grab, stripping the dead-man's switch out of Mac Dounough's nerveless hand and then hugging it to his stomach as if it were the most precious thing in the world as he went tumbling off into the weeds.
Finally, I was able to shift my weight to the proper foot and was able to charge forward myself. Two leaps and I was on MacDounough; pulling the gun from his hand was child's play after Oaktree had stolen the switch. For a moment I held the thing in my mitten-paw and stared ridiculously at it; I had no trigger finger, and therefore the weapon was useless to me. Then I finally threw it into the river just as far as my enhanced muscles would allow, kicked Mac Dounough hard enough in the abdomen to immobilize him for at least minutes if not hours -- frankly, I didn't care if the blow killed him -- and then stood over the bomber, ears erect, looking for my fellow Lapist. "Oaktree?" I asked. "Where are you? I think it's all over."
"Aaaah!" I heard him moan from someplace very nearby. "Aaaah!"
There seemed to be a slight gurgle in Oaktree's voice; in fact, he didn't sound good at all. I sniffed the air, and smelt Rabbit blood. "Oaktree?"
"Here," he finally whispered. "Over here!" In the distance I could hear a siren.
I hopped off towards him at once. Oaktree was lying in a sort of limb-cave under a cedar tree. "Are you all right?" I asked stupidly.
"I'm shot," he replied, uncurling a little so that I could see. "In the shoulder, I think."
The bullet's entry point was in the top of his shoulder, and for just a second I imagined that the wound was minor. But then I remembered that he'd been running on all fours at the time, so that the bullet must have entered his chest cavity from the top. The wound was bleeding like a broken pipe. "I..."
"Here," Oaktree demanded, handing me the dead-man's switch. It was covered in blood. "Take this." He winced as he tried to extend his arm to me; I bent down further, instead. "I could see that something real bad was happening when you took off without your helmet," he explained. "So I followed you, and called the police along the way." He half-smiled. "Did you know that you drive like a damn maniac? I almost lost you in that cemetery -- that idiot cop stopped right in front of me, and I nearly hit him!!"
I knelt down beside the wounded Rabbit and began tearing off my shirt as best I could with one hand. Then, I began stuffing the remnants into Oaktree's wound. The entry hole seemed as huge as if he'd been shot with a cannon. "Thank you," was all I could think of to say.
"I saw you go across the bridge," he continued as I applied pressure on top of the improvised bandage. "I knew the island wasn't very big, so I stopped short and snuck across on foot. Then I waited, hoping the cops would catch up. But they didn't. Not in time." His words were beginning to slur a little.
"I know," I whispered, hugging his head to my chest. "I know."
"I used to be really good at stripping balls," he continued. "I was an All-American defensive lineman once upon a time. Third string. It seems like such a very long time ago, now. Did you know that about me?"
"I do now," I whispered. The sirens were coming closer, but Oaktree's voice was weakening.
"I was!" he said proudly. "I was." Then he looked up; you could see a few little bits and pieces of the sky through all the greenery, if you tried. "I was many things, most of them pretty wonderful things to be." He smiled weakly. "Take good care of the Church, son. Please? And tell my family I love them?"
"No!" I insisted. "No, damnit! Oaktree, listen to me! You're huge! And big men can lose a ton of blood and recover from it; I learned that back in the Coast Guard. You're not gonna die; I won't let you!"
"I doubt you'll have much say in the matter," he gasped. It was clearly becoming a strain for him to talk. "Though I must admit... that I appreciate the thought." Oaktree's breathing was becoming more and more labored, I noted. "Things are getting dark, son. Mighty dark."
"No!" I repeated. "God damn it, Oaktree! You're not doing this to me! Not after we fought like we did! Listen, the cops are almost here! The ambulance can't be far behind! We're not far from the University, and the Tanks, and --"
Oaktree smiled. "You fought for... What you thought was right, Silk. And you were right. I can see that now. Nothing to apologize for there." His eyes closed, though he was still breathing. "Deathbed calls are... the very hardest things... a minister ever does, Silk. You'll never get used to them. Don't say... I didn't warn you."
"Damnit!" I cursed again. "Oaktree, we need you! You've been right about a lot of things too; about the Temple, the need for a priest-figure, so much! Sweetgrass put you on the Board for good reason; any fool can see it! You can't die! You can teach us so much! We need each other, like you said!"
"The hell I can't die," the big Rabbit muttered. "The hell I can't." His head lolled back, and a thick rope of blood emerged from his mouth.
"No!" I screamed. "No!"
Oaktree's eyes opened one last time, and he smiled from ear to ear. "Sweetgrass!" he whispered. "Jesus!" Then he shuddered and fell back, limp.
"No!" I cried out one last time. "No! You can't die!"
And suddenly there was an unnaturally loud voice behind me. "Police!" it shouted. "Come out with your hands up!"
"Thank you, Hedgeapple," I responded with a smile as my fellow Board member sat down after speaking his piece. He'd agreed with our plan entirely, which always made me feel more certain that we were on the right path. He was a truly great Rabbit, was Hedgeapple, even if usually a remarkably quiet one.
"Vroooom!" Berry whispered as he ran his toy truck up and down the armrest of the front pew, where he was seated with Digger and his mother. "Vroooooom!" He wasn't causing a disturbance; I couldn't even have heard him playing if I weren't a Rabbit. But then, I'd have missed an awful lot of other wonderful things in life too, if I weren't a Rabbit.
So many wonderful things.
"And so," I concluded our Sunday Discussion. "It's settled then? Is there anyone here who wishes to speak out one last time?"
"Vrooom!" Berry whispered again. Otherwise, the Temple was silent.
"All right, then," I continued with a wide smile. "Thank you. Thank you all." Then I looked down at my eldest son. "Berry? It's time to do the thing that we talked about, son."
"Okay," he said, rolling his eyes, and then the entire congregation laughed a little. It was a loving sort of laugh, one which clearly didn't bother Berry one bit. He very carefully put down his truck and slid to the floor, then trotted up the center aisle to join me at the podium just as quickly as he could on his still-awkwardly-big feet. "I win!" he declared, raising his arms over his head in victory. "Yay!" In the distance a camera flashed over and over as Redbud Factbringer Rabbit, formerly Derrick Volk, snapped pictures for his long series of articles about Lapism. He was setting circulation records, by all accounts, and we were experiencing the largest membership surge in our history. Being reported on by a professional religious writer wasn't quite the same thing as actively proselytizing, we'd decided, and so he snapped away with our official blessing.
"Yay!" I agreed as the congregation chuckled again. I squatted down to my son's eye level. "Are you ready?"
"Uh-huh!" he declared. "Ready!"
"All right!" I replied, handing him a silk cord. "Pull the string!"
Berry yanked away with all the enthusiasm that only a small child can bring to such a project, and the big black curtain behind our podium fell away at last...
...to reveal a beautiful, detailed mosaic of an oak tree, growing true and tall where once a crucifix had hung. "All right, then," I said, a tear forming in the corner of my eye. "I hereby declare this to be the Oaktree Temple of the Lapist Church of North America!"
"Hooray!" everyone cried out as one. "Hip-hip, hooray!"
"Hooray!" Berry echoed, dancing about in glee. "Hooray!"
"Behold the oak tree," I quoted the Book of Peace. "Behold how it stands confident in its own strength and beauty. It does not seek to impress others, nor does it aggrandize itself in false trappings. It simply is what it is and seeks to be no more, all the while quietly sheltering its family of birds and insects and squirrels in its branches, and feeding them with its acorns." My voice broke, and the congregation waited patiently while I sought the strength to go on. "It is only when an oak tree has passed," I finally continued, "that it truly becomes noticeable, both for the hole it leaves in the forest and for the hole it leaves in the lives of all around it. A Rabbit can learn much from this."
There was more, of course; Berry planted an acorn just outside the Temple entrance, where it would someday shade the spot where Oaktree had always parked his car while performing the thousand and one tasks that we never had gotten around to properly thanking him for, and Digger soberly plopped a toy shovelful of dirt into the little hole just as we'd taught him, something we'd feared that he might be too young to pull off. Then the ceremonies were over, and all four of us were standing at the back of the Temple telling everyone good-bye for another week.
"I don't know how you do it," Tulip was saying to Sundew. "I mean, your career is so much more demanding than mine. And yet you have such a wonderful family!"
Sundew smiled and grasped my forepaw. "I've got a wonderful husband," she replied, squeezing gently.
"I'm sorry about the thesis," Hedgeapple said, reaching out to take my other hand. "It must be a terrible disappointment, not finishing up such an advanced degree."
I smiled and shrugged. "In truth, it's a huge weight off of my shoulders." I gestured around the Temple. "There's no time for that, now. Besides, I don't need a degree to do what needs to be done. I've learned from two of the very best." My smile widened as I pulled my paw out of Sundew's and placed it over Hedgeapple's. "So long as I have Rabbits as fine as you to help me along, I'll do just fine without it."
The rail-thin jackrabbit blushed; you could tell by looking at the linings of his ears. "Sweetgrass would be very proud of you," he said very quietly. "So would Oaktree. I know that all of us Rabbits are, Master's degree or no."
Then he was gone, and as if by a miracle there was no one left at the Temple but Sundew and Berry and Digger and I, standing at the exit and looking down at the plot of fresh-turned earth where an acorn had just been planted.
"You know," Sundew said eventually. "We'll get sued again someday. And next time the suit may actually make it to court."
I nodded. "And there will be more fights over the Faith. Divisive ones, likely enough."
My wife sighed. "I'm still as busy as ever. And now you're busier. I can't imagine where we're ever going to find the time to properly raise the kids." She reached down and picked up Digger, who gurgled contentedly. "Lapism is supposed to be all about the family, and about love. Yet it seems like everything is always going to be on the edge of falling apart." She looked at me. "Does the Pope have these kinds of problems?"
"Ma-ma!" Digger interrupted, smiling like a little cherub. Then he pointed at me. "Da-da!" he continued, bouncing up and down in glee.
Then, he stared blankly off into space for a moment and fouled his diaper.
"Well," I said slowly, reaching out to hold my son for a moment as Sundew sighed and went for the diaper bag. It was her turn to do the dirty work. "Not precisely these kinds of problems, no!"
"Heh!" she snorted as she accepted Digger back and headed for the ladies' room. "I'll be right back, Your Lapine-ness."
Then Berry came dashing up, all out of breath. "Look!" he urged, pointing up into the sky. "Look, Dad! It's so pretty!"
So I looked.
And sure enough, a certain stubborn kid had finally, against all odds, gotten his kite airborne.