Sheri shakes me awake. She’s half out of her sleeping bag, a flashlight pressed under her chin. It’s spreading shadows across her fleshy face. Most of her sleepover had focused on going through the library books she checked out of the supernatural and paranormal section. We copied down notes about the Bunny Man on the pilfered legal pads from my mom’s home office. Every so often Sheri would look up and tell me a new part of the mythos. He had the power of illusion and liked to isolate his victims. Most people didn’t even know he was stalking them until it was too late, his breath on their neck and the cold metal of his axe against their skin, ready to slice.
He was supposed to live under the bridge tunnel behind her house. Sometimes he was an escapee from a state hospital, other times a passenger who had died in a freak train accident a century earlier. Nobody had been able to prove his existence. But nobody had been able to disprove it either, Sheri said. She pointed out local missing persons’ cases, newspaper clippings about lowering wildlife populations in town, and some sorority girl’s murder—making sure I read the part where police revealed her wounds were consistent with that of an axe. All proof he’s out there, she said.
Bunny Man’s a bunch of crap to me. I mean, come on, a guy who wears a bunny costume and hacks up people with an axe? Get real. But going along with the researching means I get to spend time with Sheri. Our families have lived on the same street since we were kids, and our moms always made me and her hang out together. Something about the buddy system and keeping the other one out of trouble. Sheri calls it an arranged friendship, that we’re just forced into each other’s lives, but she’s the closest thing I’ve got to a friend, so arranged or not, I don’t mind. Besides, she’s the prettiest girl in school. She’s always wearing the coolest clothes and she’s got a million purses to go with every outfit. She gets her eyebrows waxed and she calls her parents by their first names, Mary-Anne and Hector, as in, Mary-Anne, I’m off to the library with Denise, or Hector, what’s for dinner tonight? Her hair is smooth as glass and her voice makes my neck get hot, like I’ve got an Atomic Fireball lodged in there.
We spent all afternoon going through those books. Sheri ignored the urban legend chapter headings. She said they were only put there because most people, including the ones who wrote books, were too afraid to open their minds and branch out. The Bunny Man, she’d said while massaging a note-taking cramp in her hand, was as real as we wanted him to be. “Like Santa?” I’d asked, barely containing an eye roll, but she ignored me. Sheri wanted me with her at the Bunny Man Bridge because she said it made the most sense. I’m the biggest girl in our eighth grade class, almost a foot taller than Sheri, and have spent most summers at karate camp. I can run the fastest mile in gym—just under nine minutes—and can lift my little brother over my head no problem. If there was trouble with the Bunny Man, I could probably handle it.
It’s just as dark outside now as it was when she’d finally let me go to bed earlier. I ask what time it is. Sheri says, Bunny Man time. My Swatch says nearly one in the morning. Sheri wraps a thin hand around my arm and tries to pull me up. She’d said we had to dress all-black, to blend in with our surroundings, so I packed some stuff, tucking it deep into my overnight bag so my mom wouldn’t see. The only black clothes I own are a turtleneck and corduroys from my grandpa’s funeral last year, and sometimes when Mom sees it, she gets all weird and teary. Sheri drags me to the basement and opens what her parents still call the ice box, and hands me a bulky lump wrapped in grease-stained butcher’s paper. Rabbit meat, she says, and when I say, “Rabbit meat?” she goes, Well, duh, that’s what the Bunny Man eats, Denise, that’s what makes him the Bunny Man. I’m all like, “Not the bunny costume he wears?” which makes her put her hand on her hip and sigh like I’m an idiot, and that’s freakin’ hilarious, because I’m definitely doing a lot better in Algebra II than her.
Upstairs, she rolls a balaclava over her head, then rolls it off, complaining it smells like mildew. She makes me French braid her blonde hair back, leaving out two skinny strands to frame her round face. My scalp still aches from the tight braids my mom did yesterday, and I pat at them to try to find some relief when Sheri’s not looking. She’s got on this short, short dress and her older sister’s platform boots, which are brown, not black. Her bare thighs make my mouth go dry, and when she catches me staring, I frown and say, “I thought we were supposed to wear black,” and button my pants. The waistband digs into my skin. Sheri shrugs, saying, It’s close enough, I don’t think the Bunny Man’s gonna mind, and besides, sometimes there’s high school boys down there smoking and I want to look good just in case. I huff. “Who cares about high school boys?” I ask. Sheri gives me the same look, The Idiot Look, and says, Some of us give a shit about what other people think, Denise. And that’s not really fair, because I care about what Sheri thinks, and what my mom thinks. Isn’t that enough? I consider telling her that, but she’s already at the kitchen’s junk drawer, rooting around for batteries to put in the flashlight.
We take her mom’s mace, my idea, and her instant camera, her idea, and we walk to the bridge trying to keep our footsteps light. I expect there to be something howling outside, but I just hear Sheri’s wheezing as she tries to keep up with my stride. The moon is a toothy smile above us and the road is too dark. I trip over rocks and chunks of asphalt ripped up from potholes. Sheri says, Isn’t this exciting? “No,” I say, readjusting the rabbit, its body still cold from the fridge, slick and soaking through my sweater. At the bridge’s mouth, Sheri shines the flashlight, illuminating a hazy cloud of summertime gnats. There’s pockets of graffiti along the concrete walls and some old fast food wrappers wadded on the ground. She wants me to walk through to the other side, unless I’m too chicken. “Why do we have to go at all?” I ask. Sheri says, We have to go tonight, the moon won’t be right for another month if we don’t do it now, and by that time school will have started, and you don’t want to start high school without any real experiences, do you?
She pushes me forward, her hands on my shoulders sending hot swirls down my back. You should go first, she says, you can protect yourself better. Mace in hand, I charge through the tunnel. My footsteps echo off the walls. I smell iron and rainwater, and something molding underneath it all. I can hear the faint bell of Sheri’s voice and I drop the rabbit as I break through to the other end, and whoop my success, waving my arms above my head in a victory dance. Sheri says that it didn’t count, I went too fast. She’s going to take her time, give the Bunny Man a chance to show himself. She sounds mad. Ugh, she’ll probably ignore me the rest of the night if she’s mad. She goes into the tunnel and snaps photos. The camera buzzes as it rolls through its film. The flash gets closer every few seconds. I can start to make out her outline. She squats, taking a picture near her foot. Cicadas whir in the trees. Out here, I feel overexposed, like those dreams where you accidentally show up to class naked.
I want to tell Sheri this is stupid, we should just go back to her house, but the words stick to my tongue. Sheri’s footsteps stop. Her flashlight comes on and the beam jerks wildly, like she’s fumbling with it. There’s a whistling, almost too soft to hear. The light steadies, points right in my eyes. I think about the way back, trying to decide if I can make it in the dark by myself. Sheri screams, which makes me scream all high-pitched and girly. Her laughing face pops from the tunnel. She asks if she scared me. My heart’s a gummy worm, but I shake my head. “I just wanted you to think you got me, but you didn’t,” I say, and roll around a loose piece of asphalt with the toe of my Skechers. Sweat gathers behind my ears, above my lip. Whatever leaked onto my sweater from the rabbit is now congealing, making the fabric stick to me.
Sheri says, There’s something I want to show you. “Can’t you just tell me on the walk back?” I ask. Her face shimmers in the heat, and she says, Come on, unless you’re too chicken. “What? You actually find the Bunny Man or something?” She reminds me he’s as real as we want him to be. I don’t want him to be real, I want to leave. We can go back to Sheri’s. I’ll call my mom to pick me up. My house will be warm and far away from here. I’ll tell my mom everything. We’ll stay on the couch watching infomercials until I fall asleep, my head in her lap as she strokes my hair, like she used to do when I was a kid.
I tell Sheri all this, but she says we’ve come too far now to go back, and I have to stop being such a baby some time. She tosses me the flashlight underhanded. It stops short and I have to walk a few feet to pick it up. She holds her hand palm up and curls in her fingers before stretching them out. I need you, she says, I can’t do this by myself, don’t you know I’ve always needed you, Denise? She disappears back into the tunnel. There’s a hardness in my belly as I follow her, but I feel bad for thinking about leaving her out here by herself. She needs me, she just told me herself, so I ignore the tightening behind my belly button. Inside, I can see the river of her hair bouncing with each step. “When’d you take your braid out?” I ask. “That took me forever, why’d you even want me to do it?”
The air is hot and syrupy on my face. She tells me to keep coming, that what she wants me to see is just up ahead. My hand is slippery around the flashlight. I can’t keep up with her; her pace is too quick. The walk is longer than I remember. Probably just the difference between this and running. She keeps saying, Not much longer. It doesn’t sound like her anymore. This voice scratches across my skin. She looks bigger in the tunnel. Her shadow on the wall is distorted; she’s all hard lines, her shoulders becoming right triangles. The hum of the cicadas intensifies. The mace slithers from my wet hand. I shine the light on the ground to try to find it. There’s a pile of clean bones nestled in shredded butcher paper. The rabbit I dropped earlier.
Sheri starts yelling at me, asks what’s taking so long, why am I hiding, it’s so immature, this is getting annoying, and that I scared off the Bunny Man. I flip up the flashlight to Sheri. She’s stopped, her back still to me. Beyond her, there’s another Sheri, this one braided and leggy, her hand familiar on her jutted out hip. I reach to grab this girl in front of me, but when I touch her shoulder, she’s cold and gauzy like mist. My hand goes right through her. She dissolves into the darkness.
The Sheri outside says she’s over it, that she’s leaving, that I’m a loser. I run toward her, pushing my legs hard, the burn of exertion crawling up my shins, but the tunnel stretches long in front of me, the light of the other side narrowing to a pinprick. The cicadas stop just like that, like somebody turned them off. Breathing replaces it, first my own, panicked and full, then some behind me, the sound covering my head. I scream Sheri’s name, begging her to come back, that I’m right here, but my voice can’t reach the other side before breaking apart and falling to the ground. I have to stop, my chest sings with pain. I’m doubled over. Sweat stings my eyes. The breathing catches up to me, presses against my ears, wraps around my neck. I wipe my forehead and wait for the cold metal against skin, hoping it’s quick.