Rule 1: Never run out of carrots.
Rule 2: Never get caught.
Rule 3: Never trust anybody.
Dark. Warm. Tucked firmly in on all sides by others. All needs provided for. Nothing wanting. Perhaps a little more space. Yes, more space. Shift. Turn. Stretch. Kick. Something gives a little, then shoves back. Kick again. And again. Again. Again.
Everything tightens. Others are shoved against others, hard. Squeezed again. Again. Pressure builds up. No release. Keeps pressing in, choking, crushing.
A sudden piercing, overwhelming sense stabs through the eyes. Even shut they don't protect. Squeal in protest and pain. Kick harder. Something slips around, lifting. Skin prickles, rising and recoiling from this foreign touch—and the accompanying cold.
"You really should watch your mouth around them you know."
Dr. Jerome glared over at his assistant, Lock, through his lank, bedraggled red hair. "Easy for you to say. You're not the one who just had to C-section his pet project!"
"Look, it's rough. You raised her for a year bla bla bla, but the real project is this litter, and the last thing we need is a bunch of babies spewing swear words at our funder when he comes to check on us."
"You mean what's left of the litter. I told them they were injecting too many embryos. First they kill off the mother, then they kill off half of themselves with all that kicking. Damaged the uterus and the mother's body turned on 'em, trying to protect itself." He shrugged out of his bloodstained labcoat and slung it over a nearby chair. Crossing the room, he twisted a knob on the stainless steel faucet and watched the red flow off his hands. "Besides, it's not like they can speak yet."
"No, but the mind is a curious thing. It latches onto the oddest happenings and then regurgitates it at the least expected time."
Dr. Jerome splashed his face. "How long do you think before they start yapping?"
Lock leaned against a counter, one eyebrow raised. "How should I know? Nobody's ever done this before. We're lucky it's the funder taking the flack from PETA and the Right, not us."
"No kidding." The Doctor sighed. "Don't supposes they'd let me bury the body for sentimental reasons?"
"You know policy, Doc. All expired subjects go to the incinerator. Same goes for momma rabbit."
Back. Red and white. Red on top, white all over. Holds up food and makes sound. Reach for food. Food taken away. Game? Don't like. Holds food again, makes sound. Reach for food. Food taken away. Food! Want, have need… this never happened before. Red-and-white used to give sweet white stuff. Then big orange things. Now takes it away. Makes same noise. Makes same noise over and over. Why making same noise? Do not like. But when red-and-white makes noise, food comes. Maybe…
"You have to give it up, Doc!" Lock grated through clenched teeth. "The funder's getting impatient, and you've produced nothing but a bunch of mammalic parrots with longer-than-usual digits. It's been three months and all they can say is 'carrot', 'Doc', and 'poop'."
"The funder can take his money and shove it for all I care!" Doc shouted. "He isn't here, he doesn't know. There's other progress being made! Didn't you read my notes on #3? Out of the four left, he's showing signs of intelligence. Just because he's not saying new words doesn't mean progress isn't being made!"
"So 3 said carrot a few more times, so what?"
"You idiot! He said it when I was moving on to feed one of his littermates. He reared up on his hind legs, pressed his forepaws against the cage, and practically whimpered, 'carrot'. The second I gave him another one, he curled up in the corner with it, and I could swear I saw his eyes gleaming. The other three just say 'carrot' on cue to get their food, but this one was asking for more!"
"That's all speculation. You don't know, and if you don't know, the funder may decide he's sick of pouring his money down the drain. Doc, cut your losses. Just write them off as a failed experiment before the money runs out."
"It hasn't failed! I just need more time."
"But Doc, the funder—"
"Shut UP! Shut UP! Shut UP!"
Lock's expression froze, and Doc's heart skipped for a second. A third voice had entered the argument."
Doc turned to cage 3 and stared. The sleek grayish rabbit had placed its forepaws on the cage door and stared inquisitively at them. Cocking its head to the side, it repeated, "Up. What is up?"
Lock's eyes were as big as onions. "Did 3 just ask a question?"
3 ignored Lock and kept its eyes fixed on Doctor Jerome.
"What is up, Doc?"
"That buggar doesn't just mimic!" Doc crowed, snatching up a carrot. "That one learns!"
"What is buggar?" The rabbit had moved its eyes to the carrot.
"Buggar is you. Good talking!" The carrot slid through the bars into the greedy hands awaiting it.
"You can't be serious." Doc stared at Lock in disbelief. "The funder poured millions of dollars into mixing rabbit and human DNA so he could have a more interesting hunt?"
Lock sighed. "It seems that way. He wants them released into a nearby forest and given a month to settle in before he goes hunting."
"This has to be some sick joke."
"Look, Doc, I know you're fond of them, but the cash cow is dry now. This is the end of the project. You saw it through, and that's good, but the funder calls the shots."
"Doc?" A small voice called from cage 3. "What's he talking about? What's a hunt?"
"Nothing, nothing. Go to sleep."
"But it sounds scary."
Doc walked over and opened the cage, holding out his hands. Buggar, or so he'd been dubbed for some months now, clambered into Doc's arms and clung like a little child. Doc stroked his ears gently, waiting for him to fall asleep. Quietly, he cursed the funder. "What am I going to do? I can't leave them on their own in the woods."
"You mean, you can't leave HIM alone in the woods. The others are still barely intelligent, I know he's your pet project."
"Fine. I can't leave him alone in the woods. Not like this. He's too innocent, he'd be snared in a heartbeat."
Lock glanced at the floor. "Doc… I have an idea, but you're not going to like it…"
Nothing makes sense anymore. Doc has always been kind, with a pat on the head or a belly rub or a kind word. Now he glares at me. Tells me I'm not doing well enough on the tests. Says the others are doing better than I am. They can't be! Doc always said I was smarter than them! I can be better. Doc puts us through obstacle courses every day. The others scream and hide when they see the barking dogs. I don't. They're chained up, if I'm careful they can't get me. I climb trees faster, dig holes deeper, and reach the end quicker than any of the others. Still he doesn't smile. Still he says I scored badly. No carrots, just pellets. What did I do wrong?
Days and days of exercises and obstacles. I am the fastest, the smartest, the best. Still no reward. Finally, something different. I am caged with the others and taken outside. I have never seen outside before. The light warms my coat, and I stretch to catch all I can. Doc puts us in the back of a van and takes off his gloves, dropping them in with us. I snatch them up and put them on. Maybe if I'm more like him, he'll smile. I look at him hopefully, but he just stares sadly at me. Did I make him upset?
We're taken somewhere, for hours it seems. Then the van doors open again. The cage door opens as well, and Doc orders us all out. We spring to the ground, startled when we feel crunching under our paws.
"Leaves, you stupids, leaves." He mutters.
I sidle up to him and smile. "What's up, Doc?" It's been our joke for a while now, but he ignores me.
"Listen up. This is it. You're free to go now. You'll have to live your own lives and survive in the wild."
The wild? Survive on our own? I step toward him.
"But Doc, what are you talking about? You're our home. You take care of us."
He snarls, "Not anymore. Go. There's a forest over there. It'll have good hidey holes for rodents like you."
My chest is hurting. I don't understand. I open my mouth to protest, when he shouts, "Get out of here! Lock, get the dogs."
I smile to myself. This is just another obstacle course. Lock brings the dogs out, snapping their jaws at us and… unleashes them.
Terror shoots through my limbs, propelling me away from the scene. Doc and Lock just unleashed dogs on us! They've never been unchained before! I hear an agonized shriek and pause, turning back. Dangling from one of the dogs' mouths is the broken body of one of my siblings. With a scream, I dash away, scattering leaves and sticks as I flee. This is not an obstacle course. Doc is trying to kill us all. We failed, and he wants us dead.
No! I begin digging a hole at the base of a tree. I did not fail. I excelled. I am not to blame. He betrayed me! The hole grows deeper and longer by the second. I hear the blood-curdling baying behind me. I back into the hole, dragging leaves over the opening to cover it up, and huddle at the back. The dogs pass by. I can smell blood on the wake they leave.
"That's all of them, Doc." Lock snapped on the last leash and loaded the dogs into his own car.
Doc stared at the small body by his feet. Lock shuffled a little.
"Doc… don't take it so hard. They didn't catch Buggar at least. I know you didn't like it, but you had to break his trust. He won't survive if he trusts anybody."
"You gave him a shot, Doc. He has a chance of surviving now. He's learned all sorts of tricks, and he'll learn even more as he gets to know the forest. Fudd won't be able to snare him, you just watch. He'll be uncatchable."
"I know." Doc gazed wistfully into the forest. "So long Bugs."
Rule 1: Never run out of carrots.
Rule 2: Never get caught.
Rule 3: Never trust anybody.
Note: This was a challenge from a roommate. I told her that I could create a dark psychological profile for just about any cartoon character, so she said, "Dexter." I said that was too easy, so she said, "How about Bugs Bunny?" Viola.