A doctoral student faces a terrifying reversal of roles.
-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland- Lewis Carroll
Rebecca Foster thought: God is a rabbit, and I’m going to die.
The absurdity of the thought was lost on her, as it would likely have been on anyone in her condition, strapped as she was to an operating table and staring up at the face of a nightmare. She fought with all her strength against the irresistible pull of anesthetic.
A man’s voice said, “She’s coming out of it,” and the giant red-eyed rabbit looming over her stepped back. A human hand lowered a ventilator mask over her mouth and nose.
“No,” Rebecca tried with all her strength to produce intelligible sounds, but it was no use. She attempted to turn her head to the side and away from the mask, but she may as well have been trying to move a small building. The cold spark of fear in her stomach blossomed into a panicked conflagration of terror. I’m going to die...
Rebecca felt the mask press down against her chin and cheeks. She breathed air that was suddenly sweet, and consciousness fled her.
Six weeks passed, and while Rebecca recovered from surgery an unseasonably warm November gave way, by degree, to a cold and crisp December. A light dusting of snow blanketed the University as she walked toward the Martel science building. It felt good to be back on campus.and the chill in the air made her feel healthier than she had since her diagnosis. What was better, she had no recollection whatsoever of the terrifying hallucination she’d experienced while under anesthesia.
Built into the eastern slope of a rolling grass hill, the Martel Sciences Building overlooked the University’s athletic fields and quarter-mile track. Rebecca used the east entrance, which, due to the slope of the hill, deposited her on the second floor. She stepped through the vestibule and smiled at Gina Harper, the floor’s receptionist.
“Becky!” The stout middle-aged woman moved around the reception desk and took Rebecca in a hug. “It’s so nice to have you back!” She stepped back, still holding Becky’s hands. “You look wonderful! We’ve been praying for you.”
Not being overly-religious, Rebecca nonetheless appreciated the sentiment. She thanked Gina, told her how nice it was to be back, and made her way up one flight of stairs to her laboratory on the third-floor.
She reached out for the door to her lab and paused. For a moment, Rebecca stood holding the knob, looking at but not seeing the slab of wood in front of her. An image had flashed through her mind as she’d taken the latch, an image for which she now scoured her memory.
It proved to be no use. The image, as terrifying as Rebecca recalled it having been, had vanished without a trace. Finally, unsettled but no less anxious to get on with her research, she turned the knob and walked into her mentor’s laboratory.
The familiar smells of bedding, fur, and feces greeted her as she reached out and flipped the light switch. The fluorescent lights illuminated a wall lined entirely with three-by-three steel cages. Within each, a rabbit. Most were New Zealand Whites, though there were a few other varieties represented as well. Many had been operated upon already; some of these had wire harnesses protruding from their skulls.
Cages of rats lined the perpendicular wall. A half-dozen computer monitors and an ungainly looking interface the lab crew called “Frankenstein,” or “Frankie,” occupied the wall opposite that. Rebecca waited until the lights brightened to their full luminescence and walked toward the wall of caged rabbits. With each step, she felt her heart beating faster. Gooseflesh crept down her neck and shoulders, her back.
Rebecca paused. An inexplicable dread had manifested itself in her breast. The urge to turn and flee the laboratory was almost overwhelming. She resisted. She turned, ignoring the caged rabbits, and doffed her winter jacket. She draped the garment over the back of a chair and logged onto the computer.
Checking her University email from home had been about the one thing Rebecca had been able to do while recovering, and so dealing with the two or three messages that had come in this morning took no time at all. In a matter of minutes, she’d immersed herself in the oceans of information Frankie had collected overnight.
She was busy decoding what promised to be an interesting anomaly in the data when she realized there was someone else in the room. She hadn’t heard anyone come in, but then Doctor Fleming was nothing, if not quiet.
“Good Morning, Doctor Fleming,” She finished scratching an equation onto the back of a legal pad and turned to greet her mentor. She stood and smiled. “It’s so good….”
Rebecca let her eyes sweep the lab. She’d been positive there had been someone else in the room with her. “Doctor Fleming?” For a moment she stood, unable to reconcile her feelings with reality. Finally, she shrugged and sat back at the computer terminal. She looked over at the mess of an interface she and her doctoral mentor had engineered and constructed. It was beautiful, that mess. “Sorry, Frankie. I guess I’m losing my mind.” She turned back to the visual display and to her equations.
“Cause of death, blunt-force Trauma,” A man’s voice says. “Wrongful death.”
In her dream, Rebecca lays upon a surgical table. She is unable to move, though she’s not bound. She can feel the cold touch of the table on her back and her buttocks, on the backs of her legs and calves. It occurs to her that she must be nude.
But I’m not dead!
Panic takes her. Frantic gulps of air fragrant with the aromas of fur and feces do little to sate her need for oxygen. I’m not dead! She screams, but her mouth refuses to cooperate. The sound reverberates through her mind, though, adding to the dissonance already there.
The man’s voice continues. “Multiple lacerations made by…, well hell, I can’t even say. A small hatchet swung laterally, perhaps?”
From the way the man is talking, Rebecca knows that he’s speaking for the record. If television has taught her anything, he’s probably speaking into a handheld digital recording device. Likely a sleek, silver one, the sort rich folks order from catalogs with exotic-sounding names.
She feels a touch on her leg, then, and horror explodes inside her with irresistible force. Because there’s fur on the hand (paw?) that’s manipulating her limb—not hair but fur.
And then she sees them, all at once. Three grotesque human-sized rabbits. They loom over her, their red eyes blazing with malignant fire. The incessant twitching of their noses and cheeks, a characteristic that seems so cute on the normal-sized variety, is hideous at this scale.
It’s hard to breathe, paralyzed as she is by terror. One of the ungodly monsters makes a short series of chuffing sounds, and another disappears from view. It returns (in her periphery, Rebecca can see that it walks upright) with a tray of hideous-looking silver instruments. She recognizes the array of tools, thanks to Law and Order. They are the implements of the autopsy.
Rebecca is sweating now, in spite of the cold table and the cool air in the room. She watches with a terrible mix of fear and fascination as one of the rabbits deftly selects a pair of oversized shears. It places a paw (hand?) upon her stomach and feels upward until it reaches her solar-plexus. The touch of fur disappears, only to be replaced by the icy-steel tip of the shears.
Rebecca screamed and woke herself out of an uneasy sleep. She sat up in bed, clinging to incoherent scraps of the barely-remembered dream until they dissipated into nothingness. By the time she left for the laboratory two hours later, even the nothingness had fled.
“Becca!” Smuri Kapoor ran to her fellow doctoral student and took her in a hug. After a few seconds, she stood back and placed her hands on her slim hips. “It’s so good to see you! You look so good!”
“Thanks, Smuri.” Rebecca returned her friend’s smile. “And thanks for coming to visit, and for the packages. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
There followed a few minutes of catching up on personal lives and office gossip, and then it was back to business. Smuri seemed more than enthusiastic about the team’s results thus far. She filled Rebecca in on the progress they’d made.
“I found a similar anomaly yesterday; I made a record of it….”
Smuri grinned. “Yes, I found it. It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?”
Rebecca nodded. “If we’re getting accurate measurements, then yes, it is.” Mentally, she braced herself. This was the part, Rebecca knew, where her friend would normally accuse her of being overly-cautious, or even a downer. To her surprise, Smuri let the comment slide.
“Feel like doing me a favor, Becky?” The young woman reached into a desk drawer and produced a granola bar. She offered one to Rebecca, who declined with a shake of her head. “Doctor Fleming wants me to practice my incisions. He told me to use Big Barney.”
“Really?” Rebecca narrowed her eyes. “Barney?”
Rebecca felt a stab of something like regret. She’d grown close to the ridiculous creature affectionately known as Big Barney. Nearly three times as large as the average lab rabbit, Big Barney had never been under the knife. He served as an antibody host, and his lot in life consisted of periodically having blood drawn. All in all, Becky couldn’t help but think that it was a pretty plush gig for a lab animal. Well, it seemed Big Barney’s cruise down easy street was about to hit its first bump. “Sure, of course.”
Half an hour later the two students were scrubbed in and ready to administer anesthesia. The enormous rabbit had already been sedated. It sat, a furry dumb blob on the surgical table, blissfully unaware that it was about to be opened stem to stern.
Smuri, her little face half-covered by a surgical mask, narrowed her eyes. “How much do we administer, do you think?”
Rebecca frowned. That was a good question. Big Barney was three times the size of the rabbits they normally worked on, but that didn’t mean a triple dose of anesthetic wouldn’t prove lethal to the overweight animal. “Let’s see what it takes to put him under, and we’ll judge from there.”
“Right.” The other woman nodded. She proceeded to anesthetize the rabbit. It took a good deal more than twice the normal dosage to put the creature out.
Smuri checked the animal’s blink reflex. She then pinched the flesh between its toes with a pair of forceps. She looked up. “He’s under,” she said.
“Okay,” Rebecca frowned, “Let’s give him another quarter-dose.”
The other woman grimaced beneath her surgical mask. “Are you sure? We’re close to three full doses; we don’t want to kill him.”
Rebecca considered. Her friend had a point; maybe it would be best to err on the side of caution and administer more if needed. “Okay,” she said. “Maybe you’re right. He’s out, let’s start.”
Securing Big Barney into the surgical restraints was an easy matter, and shaving his stomach took less than two minutes. In no time Smuri was poised to make her first cut. Rebecca watched as her friend lowered the point of her scalpel onto the line she’d drawn on the creature’s abdomen. She watched as the instrument dimpled the animal’s iodine-yellowed skin, and then pierced it, drawing blood.
At that moment, the last thing either of them expected happened. Big Barney's eyes flew open, and the rabbit issued a scream of excruciating pain and terror. The shriek was ear-splitting and agonizing. At the same time, the animal arched its back and thrust itself upward against his restraints.
Startled and frightened, Rebecca heard the tray of surgical tools she’d been holding clatter to the floor. She looked, almost as an afterthought, at her now empty hands. Still, the terrified rabbit shrieked.
Smuri looked ready to pass out. The normally dark-skinned woman looked ashen; beads of perspiration dotted her hairline and upper lip. What worried Rebecca the most, though, was the look in her friend’s eyes. They had the look of a person who had gone someplace else for a time. Rebecca recognized that her friend was in shock.
The rabbit continued to scream; it raged against its restraints with incredible force. Rebecca wouldn’t have thought Big Barney capable of such a display of strength under the best of conditions, let alone after having been administered a sizable dose of anesthetic.
The rabbit wasn’t going to stop, Rebecca realized unless she did something to stop it. Smuri, in her condition, wasn’t going to be much help. With shaking hands, she filled a syringe with anesthetic and plunged the needle into the flailing animal’s stomach. The shrieking continued for one second, two, and then the animal fell silent (and thank God for that.) It collapsed, finally, back onto the table.
Rebecca felt her knees buckle; She braced herself on the operating table. “Smuri? You okay?”
The other woman nodded. She was visibly shaking, but then so was Rebecca.
“Hey, Smuri? It’s okay.” Rebecca took a step toward her friend, reached out for her hand. “Come on,” she said. “let’s get you down to the health center. Just have a seat here for a second,” she pulled the nearest chair closer to her friend, “and let me check on Barney.”
She helped Smuri into the chair and turned back to the surgical table.
Big Barney was dead.
When the initial shock of the botched operation passed, the two young doctoral candidates sought out their mentor. Doctor Fleming was more concerned than upset by the news. When Smuri suggested that she wasn’t cut out for this field of research, Fleming insisted she wait twenty-four hours before deciding.
The walk back to the Martel Building was a quiet one. Rebecca found it almost impossible not to keep replaying the horrifying images and sounds in her mind. It was the sound, though, that affected her most. It had been piercing shriek, not unlike the scream of a human baby. She shuddered each time her mind replayed it.
Smuri was still crying, though no longer sobbing. No doubt the macabre soundtrack haunted her as well. Rebecca wanted desperately to say something, to beg her friend and partner to reconsider. She wanted to assure the young woman that what they’d experienced had been a freak occurrence and that there was no reason to expect that anything even remotely close to that would ever happen again. Each time she started to choose her words, though, the rabbit in her mind screamed again, and all thought scattered.
When they got back to the laboratory, the two young women went silently about closing up shop. Doctor Fleming had suggested they take the rest of the day off, and neither had objected.
“Goodnight, Becca,” Smuri offered her friend the best smile she could conjure. It was pathetic. “It was really good to see you.”
Tears welled in Rebecca’s eyes. Her friend was saying goodbye, she understood. “Whatever you want to do, I’ll support you, Smuri. But please, think it over okay? For me?”
Smuri nodded because, well, what else could she have done? Rebecca saw the truth in her friend’s eyes, though. She took the smaller woman in a hug.
That night Rebecca dreamt of Hannibal Lecter, and of rabbits screaming.
The next morning Rebecca was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to find Smuri wasn’t at the lab. Her name was still written on the whiteboard duty-roster on the wall, but she expected that was because Doctor Fleming hadn’t yet found the time to erase it.
She hung up her coat and started a pot of coffee. Usually, the one cup she had on the ride to the University was more than enough for her. Today though, she needed the boost. She hadn’t slept well the previous night. On top of that, she’d had nightmares. She couldn’t recall what they’d been about, but she had to assume that screaming rabbits were involved in some way.
For the next hour, Rebecca sipped coffee and poured over print-outs of Frankie’s observations for the previous twelve hours. She’d located several potentially interesting anomalies and was about to start untangling the first when it started.
Most people’s experience with rabbits thumping begins and ends with Bambi’s pal, the aptly named “Thumper.” Of course, that movie, like most, is misleading. In reality, a threatened rabbit will thump with enough force to make a clap-banging noise, even through a thick carpet. The sound of a single thump on the bottom of a steel cage reverberated like a gunshot through the lab.
Rebecca jumped in her seat, startled. Fortunately, she’d been handling a clipboard and not her coffee, as it clattered to the floor. She turned and felt the blood go cold in her veins.
The rabbits were looking at her--all of them.
This wouldn’t have been so unusual, had she just entered the lab and turned on the lights. For a brief instant each morning, all the animals in the lab would turn to see who’d disturbed their environment. Never, though, had they looked at her so…intently, or for so long.
Again, Rebecca started. She stared, transfixed, at the gaggle of rabbits. Nearly one hundred large black pupils stared right back. BANG! BANG!
A second rabbit had taken the cue; it thumped his back legs against the floor of his cage. Even anticipating the sound as Rebecca had, the loudness of it came as s surprise. A third joined the clamoring cacophony, and soon the terrible banging was staccato.
Rebecca realized she was shaking. She also realized she was holding her breath, so she breathed. The noise was overwhelming; it was hard to think. She existed, for the moment, in a state of complete panic. The sound was like dozens of hammers striking loosely fitted steel shelving; she felt enveloped by it.
Still, it was impossible for her to take her eyes from the rabbits. They had fixated on her, and the effect was beyond terrifying. Even without the noise, it would have been creepy. Nearly all the rabbits were thumping now. She had a terrible mental image of the wall of cages collapsing, of nearly one hundred rabbits running at her, their red eyes glowing.
Red eyes? Their eyes are pink. What made me think red?
Rebecca heard a terrible scream then and thought one of the hares had begun to shriek, as had Big Barney. She was relieved, though only slightly, to understand that it was she who had screamed, and not one of the rabbits.
At some point, panic overwhelmed caution and Rebecca ran for the exit. Once outside the lab she closed the door behind her and paused to catch her breath. Even through the heavy wooden door, the clamor of the rabbits thumping was substantial.
Rebecca was stretched out on her sofa watching television and feeling bad about the fact that she’d fled the lab earlier that day when the phone rang. She leaned over the arm of the couch and picked up the receiver. What in the world could she have been thinking, she mused as she put the phone to her ear, letting a little scare keep her from her work? “Hello?”
The call was a short one, as devastating calls often are. “Miss Foster, will you hold for Doctor Simon?”
She said that she would. She did.
“Rebecca? Doctor Simon. Listen, I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news….”
Before she knew what was happening, he was telling her he would see her in the morning, and not to worry. He hung up. For a time, Rebecca stood holding the phone out in front of her, regarding as one might an alien artifact that had appeared, out of thin air, in her hand. When the dead line began to buzz, she put the phone back on its charger.
She could remember the doctor saying that he had some bad news, beyond that she only remembered the words powerful enough to have pierced her blanket of shock. Words like “margins,” and “aggressive” for instance. She also remembered “surgery.”
Dread filled her, cold and foreboding. The idea that, only hours ago, she might have been frightened by something as seemingly insignificant as excited rabbits made her suddenly angry. She reached out for the phone and dialed Doctor Simon’s number.
That night, she dreamed once again of the hideous humanoid rabbits.
She awoke thinking about lab animals, specifically about their bedding. She had no recollection of the nightmare she’d experienced. Nonetheless, she’d awakened with a nearly paralyzing dread of her scheduled operation. She looked at the phone on her bedside table and considered calling Smuri.
It was early, though, and it would be inconsiderate to wake her friend. On the other hand, Rebecca suddenly doubted her ability to get to the hospital on her own. It was as though every fiber of her being was raging against the idea of going back under the knife.
After a few moments, she snatched up the phone and dialed Smuri. The phone went to voicemail and Rebecca hung up.
Three hours later, Rebecca lay strapped to a surgical table, her heart racing. It had taken incredible will-power to bring herself this far.
If only she’d been a bit weaker.
Because now she could remember everything. She recalled the horrific, man-sized rabbits who had directed her last operation. The remembered image of their restless, ever-moving cheeks was grotesque, and Rebecca marveled that she could have forgotten it.
And now she’d walked right back into their trap.
“Calm down,” a man’s voice said. Rebecca looked to her side and saw an overweight man in surgical scrubs. Though a mask obscured the lower part of his face, she could see that he was smiling. “We’ve done thousands of these.”
Rebecca, who could think of nothing to say, offered a feeble nod.
“Okay, let’s get you nice and relaxed,” The man reached behind Rebecca’s head, beyond her field of view. When it returned, it held a transparent, vaguely triangular respirator mask. “My name is Doctor Asher, but everybody calls me Barney. Big Barney.”
An icy hand seized Rebecca’s insides and gave a sharp squeeze. Certainly, she hadn’t heard right. She gasped, ready to resist the mask.
The sharp prick of a needle piercing her arm was followed immediately by a sensation of warmth. Rebecca threw her head to the side and saw that another masked and scrubbed person had injected her while Big Barney (no, she must have misheard that!) had been talking.
She watched as the mask came down over her mouth and nose. With every scrap of strength and will left inside of her, she attempted to resist. She bucked her restrained body against the table; she moved her head violently from left to right. Each movement drained her, though. Within seconds resistance of any kind was impossible.
There was pressure on her lower leg, suddenly. She tried to lift her head, but the task would likely have proved impossible even without the furred hand holding the mask tightly to her face. Again, there was tremendous pressure, this time on her thigh. Rebecca wondered what sort of horrific pain might have been associated with that pressure, had she been capable of feeling pain.
As she submitted to the irresistible force of the anesthetics, Rebecca felt the horror that had taken up residence inside of her subside. In its place, a sense of acquiescence to the inevitable. She had time to process one last thought as she slid beneath the warm, black blanket of death: Oh, right. God is a rabbit, and I’m going to die.
J. Robert Kane
East Northport, NY
Dec 09-13 2017