A long swath of white fur was draped across Sarah’s chair when she arrived at the zoo’s animal health clinic for work. Puzzled, she lifted it gingerly to discover a pink nose with whiskers and a pair of comically large eyes. Long satin ears flopped down the back. The rest of the veterinary staff watched her, unsuccessfully trying to hide their grins.
“What the hell is this?” demanded Sarah.
Rod, the zoo director, took two slow steps towards her, crouching a bit. He held both arms out to his sides, palms facing forward. It was the same way he approached the tigers before their medical checkups. “Listen, Sarah, you know today’s the Egg Hunt. We always give the kiddos a chance to have their pictures taken with the Bunny.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “What does that have to do with me?”
Someone chuckled. She glared around the room but not quickly enough to catch the perpetrator. Rod cleared his throat. “Um, Cynthia from guest services usually plays the Easter Bunny, but she’s out on maternity leave. So we were thinking--”
“You can’t make me do this,” said Sarah.
“Make is such a strong word.”
“I hate kids.”
“Just sit there for some pictures. You don’t even have to talk.”
“I don’t celebrate Easter.”
Rob grimaced and rubbed his forehead. “Sorry, Sarah. You’re the only one small enough to fit in the suit.
“I’m supposed to be training to be a vet.”
“And now you can experience what it feels like to be an animal. Go get dressed.”
Sarah swore softly, draped the bunny suit over her shoulder, and stormed off towards the women’s bathroom.
Her nose itched all the time. She unthinkingly kept trying to scratch it, which only resulted in her whacking herself in the snout with a big furry paw. It was incredibly unsatisfying. The rabbit head chaffed her neck whenever she tried to correct for her non-existent peripheral vision. Inside, the suit was boiling hot despite the mild spring day.
She had been the Easter Bunny for 43 minutes.
The zoo had set up a pink upholstered chair that was as wide as a loveseat in front of the small mammal house. The starting line for the egg hunt was just to her left in the Africa exhibit. She wasn’t sure which was worse: the kids squirming to get away from her to claim their eggs or the grubby, candy-covered ones coming to see her afterward.
A toddler in a frilly Easter dress was unceremoniously plopped onto Sarah’s lap. The mother took three steps back and started cooing, “Big smiles for Mommy. That’s my good girl!” The toddler promptly turned around and tugged on Sarah’s whiskers.
“Cut that out!” snapped Sarah in an angry whisper. In slow motion, the girl’s face screwed up. Her mouth opened wide. Then she began to wail like the siren on a firetruck. The mother pulled the girl off, glaring at Sarah before leading the toddler off towards the egg hunt.
The next family in line was also a mother with a daughter who looked about six. Chocolate was smeared down the girl’s face and across both hands. Sarah was horrified that the kid hadn’t been wiped clean. Or hosed off. As the girl climbed up onto the chair, Sarah whispered, “Keep your grubby hands to yourself. I don’t want to be stained.”
The girl looked horrified. “What are you doing? Rabbits don’t make noise!” she insisted.
“Sure they do,” whispered Sarah, leaning as far away from the child as possible without falling out of the chair entirely.
“No, they don’t!”
“Rabbits teeth chatter and stomp their feet when they’re angry. They also grunt.”
The girl hopped off the chair. “Rabbits do not grunt! You’re a liar. You’re the worst Easter Bunny ever!” She sprinted off towards the Africa exhibit, tears in her eyes.
The girl’s mother stormed up to Sarah. “What did you say to my daughter?” she demanded.
Sarah leaned back on the pink chair. “Nothing. I just told her some animal facts.”
The mother looked angry enough to spit. However, before she could lash out, she realized that her daughter was out of sight. “Annabelle?” she called loudly. “Annabelle, come back!”
With one last glare at Sarah, the mother turned and scurried away after her daughter. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing she needed was a litany of complaints filed against her by the zoo patrons. Maybe she should just sit here silently. Her nose itched something fierce.
A miserable half-hour of posing later, Sarah noticed a few police officers canvassing the park. Rod pushed through a crowd of lookie-loos with a half dozen zookeepers trailing behind him. They made a beeline for the Africa exhibit.
Sarah’s imagination was unhelpfully providing images of somebody falling into the gorilla exhibit when she saw the mother of the angry six-year-old. The woman’s face was a splotchy red. She was sobbing uncontrollably onto the shoulder of a uniformed policeman.
Shit. The kid was a brat, but nobody deserved that. Then she paused, thinking furiously. There were no EMTs or stretchers, only police and zoo personnel. Plus, nobody was running around frantically or screaming.
She awkwardly levered herself up from the chair and shuffled over to the nearest cop. He stopped listening to his walkie-talkie when she got close enough. “What’s up, officer?”
He looked over at her, dressed in her bunny costume. “Don’t you mean, ‘What’s up, Doc?’” he asked, miming taking a bite out of a carrot.
“Har, har, har,” said Sarah, layering in as much sarcasm as possible. “No, really, what’s going on? Despite the get-up, I’m a zoo employee. Maybe I can help.”
“Yeah, maybe. You were next on my list. Sarah Greenberg?”
Sarah tried to nod, then realized that the suit head kept her from bending her neck. She pulled the rabbit head off and nodded. Off to one side, a little boy saw her and started to cry.
The officer looked back and forth between the crying child and Sarah. “Um, could you just take off the costume?”
Blushing, she grimaced. “I’m only wearing underwear. It was too hot to put the rabbit outfit on over my clothes.
He snorted with amusement. “Fine, just put the head back on. We can’t have you scarring these kids. Enough people have had their Easters ruined already.”
Once Sarah had squeezed the rabbit head over her own, the officer flipped open a notepad and looked over the last few pages of scribbled notes. “Do you remember a little girl, Annabelle Woodard, who posed for a photo with you about 30 minutes ago?”
Sarah gestured to the crying mother with one fuzzy paw. “Is that her mom over there?” The officer nodded. “Yeah, she sat with me while her mom took a picture.”
“Well, that was the last anyone saw her. The zookeepers are searching the exhibits. Any chance you saw her come back out?”
“Sorry, nope. But the visibility in this suit blows. I might have just missed her.”
“Are there any other areas of the zoo you can reach from this section?”
Sarah tried to shake her head, but the suit still held her neck stiffly upright. “No, not really. Africa is an enclosed region of the park. There might be some dirt trails through the trees. The farm area is just beyond it. And Australia is off to one side.”
“Ok, we’ll check those out. Did the girl say anything to you that might shed light on where she could have gone?”
“Sorry. I just remember the kid telling me that I was a terrible Easter Bunny.”
“Really? How hard is it to just sit there and pose for photos?” Sarah started to object, but he cut her off. “You know what? Nevermind. I’ve got to check-in. If you see or remember anything that might help, ask for Officer Thornton.”
The cop flipped to the next page of his notebook as he walked over to a zookeeper. Sarah stood in place, wondering if she should bother continuing with the Easter Bunny charade or just call it a day. No contest there. She started walking back to the lockers where she’d left her clothes.
Where would a person who was angry at the Easter Bunny go? Church? Sarah grimaced. That was stupid. No six-year-old would even think to make that connection. What else had the girl said? Something about rabbits.
Sarah froze. She had told the girl that rabbits make noise. The girl had called her a liar and run away. The farm area of the park had a petting zoo with a rabbit hutch. Could the girl have snuck through the wooded section behind the Africa exhibit to see it?
She considered going back to find Officer Thornton, but she was already so close to the petting zoo. She started a clumsy jog, trying to keep from tripping on the baggy leggings of the costume. She loped past the red barn full of dairy cows and continued to the fenced-off petting zoo.
That’s when she heard a scream.
Putting on a burst of speed, she dashed towards the small wooden hutch with three brown-furred Flemish Giant rabbits, but the animals were all slumbering peacefully.
Sarah jerked off the head of the rabbit costume. If she freaked out some kids, so be it.
Another high-pitched scream came from the next pen over—the goats. Inside, the goats were mobbing something in the corner, butting each other out of the way. Sarah hopped the wooden fence, noting in passing the irony of hopping in a bunny suit, and banged her arm three times against the metal food trough. “Hey, goats! Dinnertime.”
Twenty pairs of yellow eyes swiveled around in her direction. Through the mass of bodies, she could just see Annabelle curled in a shaking ball in the far corner of the pen.
Despite the trough being empty, two of the goats were gullible enough to investigate. They trotted over, and the others quickly followed for fear of missing out. Annabelle sobbed miserably. Her foot was trapped in the fencing from where she had tried to squeeze into the pen.
Sarah waded through the milling crowd of goats. One contemplatively began to chew on the tail of the suit. “Come on, Annabelle, let’s get you up.” She untied the girl’s sneaker and gently pulled her foot free from between the wooden slats.
Annabelle had snot running down her face, dripping onto her shirt. “They, they, they attacked me!” she sobbed.
“They didn’t attack you. The goats were just licking the chocolate off of you. They may be hungry buggers, but they’re usually quite gentle.”
Annabelle stopped sobbing but sniffled a few more times. She looked down at her somewhat slimy but chocolate-free hands. “They weren’t trying to eat me?”
“Come on, let’s get you back to your mom.”
Annabelle slipped her foot back into her shoe. Sarah led her through the pen, carefully shooing away the one goat who kept trying to gnaw on the costume’s cotton ball tail. They walked through the double gate together, Annabelle limping slightly. Sarah guessed she had twisted her ankle.
Beyond the goat area, they paused to observe the sleeping rabbits. Sarah leaned close. “Were you coming to see the rabbits?”
Annabelle sniffed again. “Yeah.”
“Listen. What do you hear?”
They stood at the fence around the hutch, watching three furry sleeping lumps. A soft intermittent buzzing sound filled the air.
Annabelle’s eyes widened. “They’re snoring!”
Sarah nodded. “Yup. They do that too. Come on; your mom is worried sick about you.”
They walked together in silence through the farm area and out onto the winding path back to the Africa exhibit. Suddenly, Annabelle blurted out. “Maybe you’re not the worst Easter Bunny ever.”
“I can live with that,” said Sarah.