Once upon a time, there were two sisters who lived in a house near the edge of a forest. One day, the younger sister, Laila, wanted to play hide-and-seek. She begged her older sister.
“Please, please, please can we go play? It’ll only take a minute.”
“Mom said no. It’s getting dark and dinner’s almost ready.”
Laila pouted, turning her back toward her sister. It wasn’t fair! She had wanted to play hide-and-seek all day but her sister had been too busy rearranging her dolls. Summer was almost over and before you knew it, they were going to be back in school and then they wouldn’t be able to play all day.
Laila turned to her older sister, but she was gone. She had sneaked out to help their mother with dinner while Laila had tried not to cry.
“Fine. I’ll go play by myself then.” Laila grabbed her favorite stuffed animal by its damaged ear and dragged him outside.
The sun was setting, and the sunset is always selfish. No other color is allowed to shine while it says its goodbyes. Laila ran off into the woods to hide her bunny so she could find him after counting to ten, but she didn’t notice that his gray coat was so dingy, and the sunset was so bright that he blended in with the forest floor.
Laila skipped into the forest. “We’re going to have fun, Bunny, aren’t we? We don’t need anyone else.” She made her way deeper into the forest, quickly stepping off the worn path. She wanted to have an adventure.
As she continued walking, Laila became more and more nervous. The light was much darker now. Almost everything was the same color as Bunny. And the trees. They were so big! Their branches reached toward her, like they wanted to take Bunny away from her. She hugged her favorite stuffed animal tighter.
Suddenly, the trees gave way to a clearing. The night sky glittered, and Laila relaxed a little, walking towards the middle so she could see as many stars as possible.
“Bunny, look! It’s so pretty!” She held her stuffed animal over her head like a sacrifice to the night sky. His bad ear reached toward the ground, its remaining stitches attempting to rip themselves open if it would help him escape.
Laila tossed Bunny into the air. “We’re having so much fun!” she yelled. Bunny flopped on the ground when she failed to catch him. It took awhile for Laila to find him. He blended in almost perfectly with the grass around him.
He was sitting up and staring straight at her.
“Come on, Bunny,” she said. “Let’s go play hide-and-seek now!”
She was about to reach for him when he moved. He leaned forward, as if his stuffing could no longer hold him up, but instead of falling over, his ears caught him. They pushed against the ground until Bunny could bend his knees and stand up straight. Laila could hardly believe what she was seeing. After all, Bunny was just a stuffed toy. She reached for him, intending to grab him by his floppy, damaged ear and drag him home, but he reached out and slapped her wrist.
“Ouch! That hurt. Bad Bunny!”
“You hurt my ear,” Bunny said. His voice was smooth and even, and had the same calming effect as the sound of crashing waves.
“Bunny, you can talk!” Laila said.
“Yes I can. And my name isn’t Bunny. It’s Barnabus. I think it’s time you run and hide now.”
“Hide-and-seek!” Laila said, throwing her arms into the air and spinning. Finally, after waiting all day, she had someone who could play with her. She had looked forward to playing with Bunny before, but now that he could walk and talk, it would be much more exciting.
“Not quite, Child. You will run and hide, but you should hope that what comes seeking you does not succeed.”
Laila stopped spinning. “Bunny, what are you talking about?”
Bunny twitched his nose. All but one of his whiskers had been bent long ago. In the starlight, they looked like broken bones.
“My name is Barnabus, Child. It would do you good to remember. They might be nicer to you then.”
Bunny, or Barnabus, said nothing. He grabbed his torn ear, lifting it up and tilting it slightly to the forest behind him. “I can hear them. They’re getting closer. You should run and hide, Child. You’re running out of time.”
Laila studied the edge of the forest around Barnabus, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the light. A small tuft of white flashed in the dark before bounding away. A few feet to the right, long ears poked out from behind a tree.
“That’s silly, Bunny. They won’t hurt you! They’re your cousins!” Laila grinned. She reached for Barnabus again, determined to play hide-and-seek, but stopped when she saw something reflecting from the forest. Hundreds of eyes peered at her. Some were curious, some were menacing, but most were gleeful. The kind of glee that only appears on children’s faces when they know they’re going to get into trouble but don’t care.
“Bunny?” Laila said, hesitantly.
“I told you, Child, my name is Barnabus,” he said. If his voice had sounded like the ocean before, now it sounded like waves crashing against rocks, angrily churning up the sea. “Yes, they are my cousins. My family protects each other and they’re not very happy with you.”
The girl took a step back. Teeth shone back at her, impish grins that sent shivers down her spine.
“Run, Child. And pray you can hide somewhere they will never find you.”
Laila turned and ran into the forest, ignoring the sound of pattering feet behind her. Her heart pounded against her chest and she wanted to cry out for her Mama. How do you hide from something that has spent its entire life hiding from other predators?
In the morning, Laila’s mother’s screams could be heard two counties away. Her family gathered every able-bodied man in town and searched the forest for a week. All they could find was her tattered, gray bunny.
Her mother put the bunny in her own room, on top of her dresser. She wanted to find comfort in it, as it had comforted Laila during her last hours in the woods. After only a day, she moved it back to Laila’s room. It was too painful to look at.
The next morning, the bunny was nowhere to be found.