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The Shriners’ Ball

The Shriners’ Ball By Brandon Abbott The Idea At the center of Mississippi, between Walthall and Winona, lies the town of Sera Bella, population 832. Most who live there always will. After all, they always have. They are a simple people with the absolute purest of motives, strong backs bearing together the burdens of one another’s struggles. They are devoted to God and country. They are rooted and real. Among them there is a well-developed sense of community and philanthropy, as well as a rich history of enterprise and commerce. In its finest hour, Sera Bella was known as the “Rabbit Capital of the South,” leading the great state of Mississippi in its breeding and exporting of domestic rabbits and rabbit-related products. Now, years later, with its gross domestic product having dwindled to a steady trickle of modest, yet sustainable means, the good people of Sera Bella are content to live out their days on their front porches, enjoying their simple lives and their sweet tea. Yet, for a few restless Sera Bellians, the grandeur of days gone by remains more than a pleasant recollection. For them glory refuses to cease its siren song. While most merely remember the past, they instead reach for it, cling to it, anxious to one day restore the vitality and the prosperity that once governed their now atrophic town. But try as they might with every kind of civic-minded initiative, these once-charismatic pillars of the community are all too often rewarded for their efforts with lackluster response from a citizenry all too content to simply be. This is why, when Horace Williams woke his wife Louise at 2 a.m. one early September morning with yet another great idea for reviving the spirit of Sera Bella, his interruption was greeted with a less-than-enthusiastic response. “Go back to sleep, Horace.” Louise mumbled, careful to stay close enough to sleep herself to reclaim it quickly. “No, Lou. You got to wake up and listen. I’ve got it! I’ve really got it this time!” Horace was beyond awake. He was energized. “Louise, I’ve had an epiphany!” “A what?” she exclaimed in frustration. She raised her head and tried in the lamp light to find her husband’s shadow. “Horace!” She rubbed her eyes in disgust. “Do you even know what that word means?” “Of course I do.” Horace grunted indignantly, but paused long enough to consider this. “Now listen. Wake up and think back for just a second.” Perturbed, Louise propped herself on her elbow as she checked her curlers with her free hand. She was giving up now on any quick reentry into the subconscious. Horace continued. “What’s the most fun you can ever remember having in this town?” he asked. Louise looked at the clock. “I might kill him in the morning and tell God he died,” she thought to herself. But as she considered his question, the answer interrupted her homicidal musings. After the birth of their second child, the couple had considered leaving Columbus in search of a quieter, smaller community in which to raise their family. Through Louise’s sister in Aberdeen, they had heard about the “Bunny Days Festival,” a two-day event in a little out-of-the-way town called Sera Bella. It sounded like something the kids might enjoy, so they loaded up the wagon and drove the circuitously rural route that led to a city with which they instantly fell in love. Sera Bella was a picture of quintessential southern living, with its white-columned houses and well manicured streets. The people were kind, well educated, and took great pride in their city. Louise was struck by the enormity of their “little festival” as one parking attendant put it. There were hundreds of people milling about the festival grounds, most of whom (judging from the license plates they passed in search of a vacant spot) were out of town visitors just like Horace and Louise. They quickly learned that almost the entire population of Sera Bella worked together to play host during this annual event, which showcased not only the city’s near legendary assortment of everything rabbit, but also their passion for fun, fellowship and community. Everything about that first visit, the people, the atmosphere, the town itself, told Horace and Louise this would be home. In the years to follow, the Bunny Days Festival would provide many special memories for their family. Louise instantly saw where Horace was going with this. “Well?” he asked. “Bunny Days,” she admitted, a sleepy half grin appearing on her face. “Exactly!” Horace shouted, louder than he meant to, startling his wife. Then he continued. “Remember how fun that was? Man alive, those were the days! We used to work, and laugh –“ “And sleep,” Louise offered. Horace sat on the edge of the bed, deep in thought and unphased by his wife’s interjection. “So I was thinking, what if we could –“ “No, Horace,” interrupted Louise. “No what?” he asked innocently, as if she might not have been able to read his mind perfectly, which she was. “You’re not going to bring back Bunny Days.” But Horace had already left the bedroom, absently mumbling to himself, organizing, planning, marketing. “Horace?” Louise called after him. “We could have the Bunny Bake Off!” Horace announced from the hall closet as he pulled the first of four boxes from the top shelf. “Look here! You’ve still got that cake pan with the big ears!” Louise squinted to see the silhouette of a hand holding a dented set of oversized rabbit ears in the bedroom doorway. “Honey,” Louise said, “nobody cares about Bunny Days anymore.” “And the beauty contest,” Horace continued, his voice muffled by years of cardboard, the exact contents of which no one was entirely sure. “We could pick a Bunny Queen. And Mona Watkins can crown her! Wasn’t she the last Bunny Queen?” Horace poked his head around the door. “Mona Watkins threw out her back two months ago,” Louise reminded him. “She can’t even stand up, let alone put a crown on some big-haired beauty queen.” Just then, Horace emerged from the closet, proudly adorned in blue cotton boxers, a velvet-trimmed tuxedo jacket with matching bowtie, and a tall red fez with a black tassel. “Remember the Shriner’s Ball?” he asked seductively, as he opened his arms and slowly shook his shoulders. This gesture was apparently an attempt to excite some part of Louise that obviously wasn’t awake (and hadn’t been for years.) “Horace! Put your little fez back in its box and GO TO SLEEP!” Horace hung his head, his tassel swinging slowly back and forth. Defeated, he drug his feet across the hardwood and sat back down on the edge of the bed. “I just thought if we could . . .” Louise leaned over his shoulder and placed a finger on his lips. “Shhhhhh,” she whispered. “I know. And maybe you could, but right now it’s late.” She kissed him gently on the cheek, and he smiled. As she pulled away, a bobby pin from one of her curlers snagged the black tassel, resulting in a brief but dramatic struggle. “Horace!” Louise yelled. “I know, I know. I’m putting it up.” Three minutes later, Horace lay on his back, staring at a darkened ceiling. Louise had already resumed her snoring. It would be another whole hour before Horace was able to get to sleep. Instead, he lay there tossing and turning, hoping and planning, dreaming and scheming. The boys didn’t get together for another two weeks. No, he couldn’t wait that long. This would require a special secret session. Tomorrow, he’d have to summon the noblemen, if he could just remember that blasted secret code word. The Meeting By 3 p.m. the following afternoon, Horace had managed to get word of the secret session to each of the fifteen surviving noblemen of the Ben Bali Imperial Shrine, having remembered the secret code word over breakfast. And so it was at approximately 8 p.m. that evening that fifteen of Sera Bella’s finest citizens convened together under cloak of darkness in an abandoned strip mall on the outskirts of town to determine just what urgent order of business Supreme Potentate Horace Williams would lay before them. “The Lodge,” as it was affectionately known by its patrons, was in its former life known by the less dubious distinction of “Pasquale's Pizza.” In fact, during the light of day, one could easily still see the less faded outline of Mr. Pasquale on the yellow tin awning, where he once welcomed visitors from above the door with his tall white hat, long curly mustache, and steaming hot pepperoni pie. Now, resting plainly in his place were the simple, less appetizing black letters spaced evenly above the newly installed metal doors: A.A.O.N.M.S. Below that were the words “Sera Bella #315, Southern Jurisdiction.” The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America had been a part of the Sera Bella landscape for more than seventy years. The actual location of The Lodge had in fact moved from time to time, however, based on available space and Lodge budget. When the former Lodge location suddenly became unavailable due to a tragic fire, the Ben Bali Shrine took action in two ways. First, they quickly outlawed cigar smoking during meetings in which fezzes were to be worn. Second, they began an exhaustive search for a suitable, yet affordable location to serve as headquarters for the Shrine and its significant (if not critical) community-driven efforts. As it turned out, Grover Bailey, honorable Shriner for almost forty years, owned the dilapidated strip mall they now called home, having purchased it from a company up north when TG&Y closed its doors in the ‘80s. The members promptly relocated to their current post, thanks to a kind and gracious offer from Mr. Bailey to provide the facilities rent-free. As he approached the deceptively unremarkable entrance, Horace noticed that he was not the first to arrive that evening. The doors were already unlocked. Upon passing through the windowless entry into the dimly lit corridor, the Potentate paused for a moment to take in the tradition. He walked past the stone sphinx and squatting marble Egyptians to a beautifully carved wooden two-headed eagle emblazoned with the number “33” on its chest. This was of course in honor of Euval Snodgrass, the only Sera Bellian to obtain the prestigious level of 33rd Degree Freemason. Once a Knight Templar of the Scottish Rite, Mr. Snodgrass (God rest his soul) was now a posthumous source of pride for each man who walked down the hallowed hallway leading from the foyer into the meeting room. The walls on either side of the hallway were gilded with pictures of other notable Freemasons. Presidents Harry Truman, FDR and Gerald Ford were first, followed by Warren G. Harding and George Washington. There was Ty Cobb, Buzz Aldren and Norman Vincent Peale, along with Gene Autry and even Mozart. As was customary, Burl Ives was singing faintly in the distance. Horace recognized it as Live at Chautagua. He was at once overtaken with the wonder of it all. He was surrounded by legend, tradition and greatness. With no small sense of pride and reverence, he made his way ceremonially to the large room just a few historic steps away. There had not been a special secret session of the Ben Bali Shrine in almost 17 years, the night Horace had been ceremoniously appointed Potentate by outgoing leader Ben Harley. That was a night to remember. Horace had thought long and hard about invoking such a sacred protocol once again. But this was important. And besides, the boys needed the practice. The lights were dimmed. The candles were lit. The noblemen, all fifteen of them, were already seated silently in three neat rows. Entering the room, Horace felt the weight of his office as all fifteen heads turned to acknowledge his presence. One by one, they stood, some slower than others due to varied infirmities. When Horace reached the podium, he looked out across the room. These were men upon whose backs this town was built. They were good men, hard workers. It would not be hard for them to catch the vision Horace would soon share. Taking up his gavel, he rapped it once, then twice, and said passionately, “Brotherly love, relief and truth.” On cue, the three ranks of Freemasons responded in scattered unison, “Brotherly love, relief and truth.” “You may be seated,” said Horace with a final rap of the gavel. Slowly, he took a deep breath in preparation for the eloquent plea he would now make to his awaiting and ever faithful Shriners. “Honored noblemen of the Ben Bali Shrine, lend ye your ears to this, an urgent proclamation from your Supreme Potentate in the time honored tradition of Grand and Illustrious . . . “ “Hey Horace?” Sam Claxton spoke up from row three. Horace was surprised by this break in protocol, but Sam was an old friend and therefore instantly excused and given the floor. “Yes, Nobleman Claxton.” “Can we hurry this up? Francis has tore up our washin’ machine again, and she’s givin’ me twenty kinds of grief to get it fixed before bedtime.” Horace looked puzzled. Seizing upon an obvious opportunity, a nervous Larry Delchamp raised a timid hand and offered, “Uh, me too, Horace. Mine’s tore up too.” Just then Larry’s twin brother Lonny slapped him on the back of the head, sending his red Granger Select cap tumbling to the floor. “Larry, you stooge! You ain’t got no washin’ machine!” he said in disgust. Horace instantly banged his gavel on the podium, demanding order. He was outraged at this lack of reverence. He worried now that perhaps his fellow noblemen would respond to his idea just as Louise had the night before. He pointed the handle of his gavel at the Delchamp brothers in admonishment. “You boys hush up now!” he said with irritation. “This is a special secret session of the Noblemen of the Ben Bali Shrine! We are in a time of extreme peril, and you will act like it!” The members looked around at one another, clearly confused. Lonny Delchamp mumbled under his breath, “Ignorant stooge.” Larry was still rubbing his head. “Uh, Horace, what do you mean by ‘peril’?” said Charlie Snodgrass. Charlie was the son of Euval Snodgrass (God rest his soul) and was one of the few members present who had thought to come in the traditional ceremonial blue blazer and red fez. Of all the noblemen, Charlie was the closest in degree to Horace, and by far the smartest of this unlikely band of brothers. Were it not for a few certain “indiscretions” at the Convention of ’85, he might very well be Potentate today. Yet he held no grudge. He was that kind of man. “Thank you, Nobleman Snodgrass.” Horace sighed in relief, seizing the opportunity to capture his audience and get on with what was quickly becoming a colossal disappointment. “I’ll tell you what I mean by peril,” Horace continued, less formally now. He had judged, and wisely so, that this meeting was more of an interruption than an historic occasion. “Most of you have been here long enough to remember what this town used to be,” Horace said as he wiped his forehead. “Time was when we knew what it meant to work together, to accomplish something. And you could see it in the people. They walked taller, stood up straighter.” He had their attention now. This had long been a complaint among lodgemen in the course of their semi-monthly meetings. It was their favorite gripe. Gone were the good old days. “We sure miss the good old days,” they would say. A few of them began to nod in agreement. Larry Delchamp was digging at the grease under his fingernails. “Fellow Shriners,” Horace waxed eloquence, “I have a plan for this little Heaven on Earth we call Sera Bella. A plan to bring back the shine to these streets of gold, to polish the pearl of these city gates, to strengthen the pillars of these jasper walls.” He was running on all eight cylinders now. A smattering of voices hummed in approval. “Dear and trusted members of the order of Freemasonry, I ask you to dig deep into your soul.” “Come on!” a voice encouraged from the second row. “Search yourself and be found honorable!” “Amen,” came another. “Whole!” “That’s right,” said yet another. “Are you ready to give service in this city’s greatest time of need?” Horace pleaded. In a spontaneous burst of civic pride and enthusiasm, the group was now on its feet, cheering and clapping in an unquestionable show of support. Horace felt instant vindication. He had done it. He had won them over. He had them right where he wanted them. Now he would deliver the knock out punch “It’s time, dear friends, to bring back the Bunny Days Festival!” he shouted. There was instant silence. Lots of deer caught in lots of headlights. The transition was abrupt to say the very least. The very same pillars of the community who had just moments earlier shouted their support were now withdrawing it like water down a toilet. Crickets chirped through the open window in the back. “Uh, Horace?” Lonny Delchamp broke the silence. “Did you say,” he drew his words out slower than normal, “BUNNY DAYS?” All heads turned back to Horace. “Well, yes,” Horace admitted with some trepidation. Gradually, a crescendo of laughter filled the room. “Bunny Days!” laughed Sam Claxton, who was already grabbing his coat. “That’s a good one, Horace! Real good one.” His laughter was contagious, and soon it grew to an uproarious level. It took less than sixty seconds for fifteen of the sixteen men present to lose themselves in the humor of their Potentate’s obvious joke. It took less time than that for Horace to be lost in disillusionment. Leave it up to a Snodgrass to grasp the reality of the moment and exhibit true-born leadership. Charlie, seeing Horace’s reaction, quickly regained control of the room. “Whoa, boys! Hang on a minute!” Charlie called. “Horace? You’re serious aren’t you?” he asked in an almost compassionate tone. “You really want to bring back the Bunny Festival?” Horace looked up at his long time friends, confidants, brothers. The hurt was evident on his face. “Yes,” he said with almost a whisper. “I do.” “When?” Charlie offered the next obvious question. “It would have to be before Halloween, or it will be too cold, explained Horace. “We’ll need some time to plan, but I’m guessing we’ve got about four weeks, max.” Grover Bailey, the eldest of those present, spoke up instantly, pulling up his pants at the same time. “I was around the first time we mentioned the idea of a festival like this. They laughed then too, but we showed ‘em.” He pointed to Horace with an arthritic finger. “You count me in, boy. And Hilda too. She’ll get that Women’s Auxiliary involved. We’ll make this one hell of a shindig.” The others looked around cautiously. What Horace was asking was a huge undertaking. Even when the Lodge was at it strongest, with a due-paying membership of over 120, the coordination of the Bunny Days Festival took months of planning. Pulling it off required a high level of interaction with over a dozen community and religious organizations, various media outlets, and participation from every major rabbit producer in the city. This was the first area of concern that drew immediate attention from the men, who were now sitting in an unorganized cluster of chairs throughout the room. Sam, still wearing his coat, was again the first to speak. “I just got one question,” he said. “Where we gonna get all them rabbits? We ain’t exactly the Buckle of the Bunny Belt anymore, you know?” he offered, drawing a few nods from those whose allegiances shifted based on the validity of each comment. Horace was still standing. “I thought about that,” he explained. “We still have two major rabbitries operational in the county, one of which is here in Sera Bella.” Horace continued, laying out his plan for drawing outside commerce into a temporary coalition of merchants and vendors. The Bunny Days Festival had always been exclusively Sera Bellian. Very rarely had any other municipalities been permitted to participate, let alone invited. This, explained Horace, would have to change. Sera Bella had to reach out to surrounding communities and draw strength (and foot traffic) from them. The goal, he reminded his friends, was not so much to make money, or reestablish the Festival to its once annual status. Instead, it was Horace’s dream that the community of Sera Bella would, through its efforts, remember how if felt to work together and accomplish something much bigger than itself. Upon hearing this, many of the noblemen began to realize that it could work. “And you want to have the Shriners Ball too?” asked a skeptical Lonny Delchamp. Charlie Snodgrass, who had until now remained silent, stood and placed a hand on Horace’s shoulder, addressing the less simple of the Delchamp twins. “Lonny, I see where Horace is going with this,” he reassured. “Can’t you just see it? The big white tent at the very center of the fairgrounds? Black tie, red hat, and people from miles around witnessing the timeless service and strength of the legendary Sera Bella Shriners.” He turned to Horace. “My Supreme and Illustrious Grand Potentate,” he said with almost mock majesty, “I think it’s brilliant. And you can count me in.” Grover Bailey raised his cane, as standing would have taken too long and killed the moment. “Me too, boy. Count me in too!” One by one, each of the noblemen slowly rose in support of this historically ambitious project. In the end, only one remained seated, Sam Claxton. “Sam?” prompted Horace. If Sam was going to vote no, he was going to have to say it out loud. “Aw, shoot, Horace. You and me’s been like brothers. It ain’t nothing personal. I just don’t see how 16 geriatric has-beens like us is gonna do what it took 120 of us to do when had our own teeth.” Grover instinctively pressed at his own dentures. Sam stuttered, but continued. “And -- and besides. What kind of entertainment you gonna get for the Ball on this short notice?” Horace grinned. “I’ve already got that one covered. You boys start putting everything together, and leave the entertainment to me.” The Nephew Dr. James C. Preston was not a doctor at all. He had never completed medical school. In fact, though he had enrolled, he never actually attended medical school. This minor technicality was of course kept from his parents, who served faithfully throughout his formidable collegiate career as his principle, if not only, benefactors. James, or Jimmy really, had been in no hurry to reenter the scholastic jungle, having just barely met the minimum requirements of his undergraduate degree (another detail kept from his parents). Instead, Jimmy explored other pursuits. During what he could remember of his sophomore year, a roommate had introduced him to the world of magic and illusion. Jimmy had been fascinated by how easily and innocently the human eye could be tricked into a false perception of reality. It wasn’t, however, until his involuntarily brief relationship with a psychology major that Jimmy’s fascination with the eyes gave way to his intrigue about the brain. From his short-lived love affair with the dark and depressing brunette he later referred to as “Sunshine,” Jimmy had learned of the possibilities offered to one who could effectively and consistently enter into or lead others into a state of hypnotic trance. This love affair (with hypnotism, not Sunshine) would soon blossom into an enterprise that was, compared to the meager stipend he received from his unsuspecting parents, quite lucrative. After some time of self-training, Jimmy soon found himself more proficient in the study of hypnotism than he had ever been in the field of “real medicine.” Once word spread of Jimmy’s unique abilities, every frat house on The Row was booking him for mixers and other socials. He studied the skits of the great stage hypnotists and mastered the art of large-scale hypnosis. Working in crowds of 20 to 200, Jimmy soon developed a dependably hilarious presentation that was enhanced greatly by willing and reckless college students anxious to tap into their subconscious. He was an instant celebrity. With fame came a surplus of cash, and with cash, the desire to make more. Feeling as if he had found his calling, Jimmy became James and Mr. was replaced with Dr. He maxed out his one credit card in good standing with two new suits and 500 custom-printed business cards that read “Dr. James C. Preston, Master Hypnotist.” He was now open for business. Within months, however, Dr. Preston was having second thoughts. After leaving the college circuit in search of larger, more reputable venues, the Master Hypnotist was quickly seeing that he had tricked himself into his own false perception of reality. His mistake was in believing that adults, with their personal hang-ups and irrational fears, would be as open to the suggestions of a hypnotist as were the carefree college students back on campus. They were not. In fact, Jimmy had begun to feel quite inept at the very skill he had once so effectively mastered. He tried self-hypnosis to sharpen his skills, or at the very least make himself less hungry. Neither attempt was successful. He needed work, and bad, which is why he nearly broke his neck to answer his phone one September afternoon. Upon reaching the receiver however, he saw the Caller ID spell out “Williams, Horace.” He cursed aloud. Jimmy loved his mother. But his mother’s brother was an entirely different story. As a child, Jimmy was forced to attend far too many family reunions and get-togethers, most of which seemed fated to always take place in that hole-in-the-wall town, Sera Bella. Uncle Horace and those ridiculous Shriner buddies of his dancing around in their red hats and riding in their little miniature cars were cute when Jimmy was four. But through the years, their impression on young Jimmy Preston would lead to what could only later be described as deeply repressed fear, if not psychotic trauma. “Good ole’ Uncle Horace,” Jimmy said to himself, choosing to ignore the call. When the answering machine kicked in, he listened as he screened the call from his least favorite relative. “Jimmy! Hey buddy, this is your ole’ Uncle Horace! Hope all is well with the great Dr. Preston. Hey, are you there?” Jimmy was determined to wait out the call and promptly delete the message. His uncle had other plans. “Jimmy. Pick up the phone, son. I spoke to your mother. She said to tell you how proud she is of the work you’re doing in MEDICAL SCHOOL.” Jimmy knew the implications of this statement. Uncle Horace was the only member of his family that knew the true story behind his collegiate misadventures. In what was supposed to be his first year in medical school, Jimmy prematurely took the stage as Master Hypnotist for a group of retiring policemen from Columbus. Had he known the retiring chief had an incredible fear of electrocution, he would have never suggested the man act as if his seat were like an electric chair. Jimmy’s inexperience landed the officer in the hospital’s cardiac unit and Jimmy in the city’s lockup. It was Horace that Jimmy had called to make bail. It was a decision Jimmy would regret for the rest of his life. He jerked up the phone and tried to sound out of breath. “Uncle Horace!” he panted. “I thought that sounded like you. I just walked in the door.” “Uh huh,” grunted Horace. “Well, since I got you on the phone, I need you to do me a little favor. You still doing that hypnosis stuff?” “Stage hypnotism,” Jimmy corrected. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. You still do it?” “Well, yes.” he said, surprised and concerned with where this might be going. “Good. Now listen. Here’s what I need . . .” Jimmy’s ear began to sweat against the receiver as he listened to his uncle’s request. He knew instantly the answer would be no. He was not going all the way out to Sera Bella. He was not going to entertain a bunch of cheesy old farts in their red felt hats and ceremonial mumbo jumbo. He wasn’t even sure that he could successfully pull off another show anyway. It didn’t matter what Horace said. He wasn’t going to do it. “I can pay you one thousand plus mileage. But I can’t go a penny more!” Jimmy’s thoughts were instantly interrupted. Did he say “one thousand?” Dollars? He considered this. Absently, he stirred the mix into his Ramen noodles. Maybe he could . . . No! No way. Ten thousand dollars wouldn’t be worth that. Then Horace lowered the hammer. “I told your mother you’d be there. She can’t wait to come and see what all you’ve learned in your med school psychology classes.” That was it! This was extortion. Nothing less. And it had to end. Then Jimmy considered the balance of his savings account, an account that once held tuition money his mother had deposited, an account which was now empty thanks to a sizeable investment in flashing strobes and a portable audio system. He swallowed his noodles, and his pride. “I’ll do it,” he said, before he had more time to think. “That’s wonderful! I’ll tell the boys. They’ll be so excited.” With the customarily fake salutations, good ole’ Uncle Horace was gone. How had it all come to this? The Preparation Horace knew it was an eternal truth of mankind that when the going got tough, the tough did in fact get going. With an event that required four long months of planning having been squeezed into four short weeks, a handful of individuals instantly established themselves as true leaders, assuming critical responsibilities and deftly carrying out the tasks at hand. Seventy-nine-year-old Hilda Bailey was no exception. To say Hilda was a ball of energy spoke less to her stamina than to her overall shape. Standing upright at four feet and seven inches, the wife of the honorable Grover Bailey was literally built like a bowling ball with legs, very short legs. Yet, in spite of her stature, Hilda Bailey commanded no small amount of authority among Sera Bellians. With a manner as short as her temper (and her knee-highs) Hilda Bailey was more feared than respected, but the results were the same. If Hilda was present, she was in charge, a fact which Grover would not refute. Capitalizing on this powerful asset, Hilda instantly went to work organizing and planning the food and decorations for an event she had coordinated countless times in what seemed like another life. The harder she worked, the more alive she felt. It had been years since she could remember this kind of vim and vigor, and she liked it. Thanks to Hilda and the ladies of the Sera Bella Women’s Auxiliary, the Bunny Days Festival would rise from the ashes in style, complete with a decadent display of culinary masterpieces trimmed with enough flowers to bury the entire Shriners Lodge. Topping the menu, of course, was Hilda’s prize-winning, show-stopping, completely secret recipe for a punch she had long traditionally reserved exclusively for this very occasion. Also among the elder movers and shakers was Raymond Pratt, ten-year Shriner and thirty-year newspaper editor, now retired. Raymond was in charge of publicity for the Bunny Days Festival of the modern era. Thanks to Raymond, the event instantly took advantage of a full-scale media blitz. The very week the Shriners announced their plans, Raymond had secured a two page spread in the Sera Bella Sentinel, beginning on page one. Leading the story was an ancient black-and-white photo of Horace and several Shriners holding a large banner that read “Bunny Days Festival, 1972.” Just below that a giant headline read “The Bunny is Back!” Raymond had also edited and distributed a special, four-page edition of Horace’s monthly Pote’s Notes newsletter, detailing the grand and illustrious history of the once exclusive Shriners Ball, and announcing that for the first time ever, this sacred event would be open to the public. The crowning achievement for Raymond, however, came when his granddaughter, a beat reporter for the NBC affiliate in Starkville, agreed to bring a cameraman and cover the event for the station’s weekend video magazine “You Can’t Get There From Here.” From radio announcements to bumper stickers to flyers at the Piggly Wiggly, Raymond had covered all the angles. Not to be outdone, however, Charlie Snodgrass held a predictable lead in the race for volunteer of the year, totally eclipsing the competition in the category of creativity. As chairman of the Shriner Motor Corp, Charlie instantly put his resources to work, organizing and coordinating what he intended to be the greatest midget car race in Sera Bella history. As a former childhood champion of the Sera Bella Midget Motor Speedway, Charlie’s talents were made evident early in life. A pint-sized prodigy behind the quarter midget wheel, Charlie established himself early on as agile, competitive, and a virtuoso of the four cycle engine. This reputation eventually proved very valuable as Charlie was chosen to head the Southern Jurisdiction’s Grand Decennial Consortium for Parade Cars and Motor Patrol in 2002, an honor which all in the Ben Bali Shrine felt was long overdue. The prestigious appointment earned Charlie a first class ticket to Vancouver for the annual Imperial Council Session. Upon arriving, Charlie quickly met a fellow Shriner from Des Moines who shared his love for the motor patrol and its trademark tiny cars. During a night of painting the town fez red with his newfound compatriot, Charlie quickly surmised just how popular the midget cars were with the residents and tourists of Vancouver. By the next morning, the two men had developed not only massive hangovers, but also the traces of what they later remembered to be a brilliant plan for cashing in on Canadian commerce. By week’s end, their newly-formed partnership had yielded 300 import orders for classic parade class midget cars, resulting in a net profit of over $200,000. When Charlie returned home, he was sporting a newly fashioned fez adorned with pure rhinestones imported from Austria. Ever the enterprising entrepreneur, Charlie now focused his efforts into assembling what he was proudly calling “The Bunny Day Brickyard.” It would be an exciting display of raw energy and power as men, women, and children, mostly just children, harnessed the power of 12 horses and tackled the dusty Sera Bella Speedway. It would be an event worthy of a sizeable entry fee, with the winner taking home their very own Official Vancouver Imperial Council Motor Patrol pace car. An additional pace car would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Charlie, in an unprecedented show of civic benevolence, would donate the cars free of charge. Charlie’s wife Mildred would have donated her husband just to get those surplus pieces of junk out of her garage. It was a win-win scenario. Commercially, The Bunny Days Festival as a whole was turning out to be a much bigger success than anyone, even Charlie, had anticipated. Within days of the article in the Sentinel, businesses from within a fifty-mile radius began to flood the post office with vendor applications and lot requests. Long before the deadline, establishments from across the mid state had committed to be a part of what they hoped would be the revival of one of the most profitable and longest running local festivals in Mississippi’s history. Merchandise began pouring in. Bunnies were imported from neighboring counties. Various trucks rolled in with their shipments of souvenirs and signage. Sera Bella’s newly elected sheriff, Tuff Cooley, a tall, ominous man with a steely stare from behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, found it necessary to deputize his two new trainees early in order to deploy a maximum number of officers to handle the influx of guests. Mobilizing all available troops, Sheriff Cooley posted men at each of Sera Bella’s four main access roads to log all out-of-area vehicles and their contents. He also deployed his newly formed K-9 unit to sniff for any contraband material. Viscous and ready to attack on command, Starsky and Hutch were a pair of highly trained Bluetick Hounds that bore the official SBPD badge and benefited from years of faithful service in the woods of central Mississippi as they tracked and treed hundreds of would-be criminal raccoons and the occasional wayward opossum. As Horace made his own plans, he could not help but swell with pride at seeing his little town come together with such efficiency. Young and old alike were working hand in hand, led by some of the finest men and women God had ever placed upon this Earth. It was exactly as he had envisioned it. In the darkest corners of his mind, Horace could not imagine anything that could possibly tarnish the newly acquired shine of his beautiful Sera Bella. But then again, Horace never did have much of an imagination. The Parade The first thing that Jimmy Preston noticed was the traffic. It seemed to be backed up for miles. On this one-lane road, however, it was impossible to pass. Little by little, he began to notice the occasional bystander on the side of the road. Typical, he thought. Just like these people to be standing around with nothing to do. Simple. There was just no other word to describe them. Turning down his radio, he cracked the window for a breath of fresh air. What was that noise in the distance? A low pulse. Boom . . . boom . . .boom. It was coming from up ahead in a steady rhythm. What he saw next, he couldn’t believe. It was an old man wearing a red fez full of rhinestones on a midget car running circles around him. No, it couldn’t be. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he said aloud. Just then, a siren blasted from behind him. Turning wildly, he saw the flashing red lights of an antique fire engine, and he knew instantly where he was. Hanging his head, he inched slowly forward down Main Street, waving at the now hundreds of people on his left and his right and taking his place as float number 27 in the Bunny Days Festival Parade and Opening Ceremony. After 45 excruciating minutes of smiling and waving, Jimmy was finally able to park and exit his makeshift float. His first order of business, find Uncle Horace and get paid. That way, there was no risk of staying in this town one minute longer than necessary. As he crossed the throngs of people, smiling their sticky smiles behind the cotton candy and caramel apples, he spotted a beautiful young girl in a formal gown and a sash that read “Bunny Queen.” Bunny Queen, indeed, he thought. Horace could wait. There might just be more to see here than he had anticipated. The air was electric. People from miles around had flocked to the civic revival long since missed by more than just Sera Bellians. It was as large a crowd as anyone could ever remember, even in the festival’s heyday. Lights illuminated the dusky sky as vendors lined the walkways with makeshift shops and stands. Local restaurants like The Rabbit Hutch set out tables on the sidewalks and resurrected once legendary recipes like Hearty Hare Stew and Barbeque Bunny Brisket. Closer to the festival grounds, four rabbitries from three surrounding counties had set up shop. The first two, the ones closest to the restaurants, were principally meat producers. Their showcases were full of prepackaged, even preseasoned, rabbit meat. Fryers ranging in size from 1 ¾ to 2 ¾ lbs. lined the coolers just below a large sign that explained how best to prepare and cook the meat. Farther down the sidewalk was a petting zoo for those patrons with a less carnivorous inclination. There, children and their parents were allowed to hold and pet the larger rabbits, which were spared from the ranks of the first two rabbitries as larger bunnies are heavy in fat content and typically poor breeders. Just beyond the zoo were two other rabbitries ready and willing to match these cute and cuddly creatures with a loving, well-intentioned home. The crowd lingered for hours. Horace, while returning home just after dark, busied himself most of the night preparing for the following morning’s activities. He would sleep less that night than he had the evening when the idea had first come to him, that wonderful epiphany of an idea. Tomorrow night was the big night. The Ball was at hand. It would be yet another night to remember. The Big Day The following morning, the crowd had grown from the night before, with most of the foot traffic now centered around the ring of booths encircling a huge white tent that would host the night’s gala event. Just down from the petting zoo, Ephram Tanner, the festival’s only rabbit producer who was actually a Sera Bella native, was giving an enthusiastic explanation of the rabbit production market in central Mississippi to an attractive, slightly overdressed Mollie Pratt and her more casually attired cameraman. In the presence of a camera and microphone, Ephram had apparently developed a flare for the dramatic, as well as a tendency to offer entirely too much information. “It’s been a long climb back to the top since the heat wave of ’83,” Ephram was explaining. “We always had us a good crop every year. Champagnes, Californians, New Zealand’s, all sorts of rabbits. But then we had us a terrible string of hot weather.” Ephram leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret with the reporter. “What you gotta know is, them rabbits, they don’t perform so well in that kind of heat.” Mollie looked worried. “Kind of makes their snap and crackle lose its pop, if you know what I mean.” He winked at her, then continued with great confidence and authority. “Of course everybody knows sterility is hereditary. So before long, we might as well of had a bunch of ‘funny bunnies’ prissin’ around for all the good they did us.” Mollie tried desperately to interrupt, but Ephram was undeterred. “Next thing you know, there’s the sore hocks epidemic of ’84 and . . .” He looked straight into the camera for dramatic effect. “The rest is history. See, people think with rabbits you just put ‘em in a cage and let ‘em go at it, but it just ain’t that easy.” He looked over his shoulder and gave a reassuring wink to Raymond, who was standing just off camera and chewing three large antacid tablets. Mollie quickly cleared her throat. “Yes,” she interrupted loudly. “I understand. Thank you, Mr. Tanner, for that . . . insight.” With a forced smile and a terse shake of the hand, Mollie walked hastily toward the petting zoo, her camera man following, trying to keep up. As she retreated, Ephram offered a fading note of gratitude. “Thank you, ma’am, for recordin’ me there with your video camera and all.” Ephram turned to Raymond, excited and proud. “How’d I do, Ray?” Ephram asked anxiously. Raymond put a reassuring arm on Ephram’s shoulder, the smell of chalky fruit still on his breath. “Ephram, you do have a way with words.” Giving his friend a consolatory pat on the back, Raymond lowered his head and traced the hurried footsteps of his granddaughter, who was now directing the cameraman in an attempt to get as much “B” roll of children and cute bunnies as possible. She was going to need it. The rest of the day went largely without incident. Charlie’s “Bunny Day Brickyard” was a predictable success. Sera Bella’s former Bunny Queen, Mona Watkins, showed up to lead the racers in a ceremonial lap prior to the green light. Since, however, a herniated disc prevented her from manning the cockpit of the traditional midget pace car, Mona allowed the pit crew to temporarily attach racing stripes to the side of her Medicare-sponsored dark red electric medical scooter. Louise had followed Horace’s advice and dusted off the old big-eared cake pan for the Bunny Bake Off. With the kids grown and Horace’s blood pressure acting up, Louise baked far less than she used to. However, it was clear that she had not lost her touch, as her red velvet rabbit ears with cream cheese icing yielded first place. For her efforts, Louise was rewarded with a very large blue ribbon and (most importantly) bragging rights at the next Sera Bella Baptist Fifth Sunday Singing and Dinner on the Grounds. She would savor the achievement long after the cake. Just after the announcement of the Bake Off winners, several of the Shriners began to congregate in a secluded corner of the big white tent. There, they would make their own private judgments concerning the baked goods from the contest, deciding together which entries should be eaten and which should simply be lied about. It was a ritual to which they had grown accustomed in the festival’s former life. As Horace and several of the Shriners lounged in a gluttonous stupor amid a scattered group of metal folding chairs, they exchanged accounts of the day’s activities, reporting on the state of their varied areas of responsibility. Almost every report was positive. The only blemish on the day came when Sam Claxton was accosted by a much larger red-headed Irish vendor who was upset by the less than significant sales from his wine and spirits stand. For any number of reasons, not the least of which was the unyielding influence of the chaste and altogether prudent Hilda Bailey, alcohol had never played a large part in the variety of concessions offered at the Bunny Days Festival. A standard had been set early in the festival’s inception to provide as much of a family-friendly atmosphere as possible, in spite of being located at the center of a “wet” county. This theme had carried into the event’s reincarnation. However, the influx of outside vendors was not exactly privy to this sort of demographic reality. Unfortunately for the frighteningly large Irishman (and for a moment Sam Claxton as well), event-goers paid little interest to such event anomalies as a liquor stand. According to Sam, Mr. McAllister (or something like that, as Sam remembered) was most disappointed, having invested heavily in a large quantity of “clearance” liquors procured from an associate in Biloxi. He had apparently overstocked, even emptying his heavy glass bottles into makeshift gallon jugs for easier transportation. “What’d you tell him?” Horace wondered aloud to Sam, who was still searching for words to adequately express the enormity of the Irishman and the eminent peril he himself faced in the exchange. “Well, first I told him to come find you.” Sam looked at Horace, then turned to spit as the others laughed. “Naw,” he admitted, as he wiped his chin. “I told him ‘bout Carter Cook. You know that ole’ boy that runs that juke joint over in Winona? I figured Carter might take some of that off his hands. I reckon they worked somethin’ out, ‘cause Carter’s comin’ by tonight.” “You be sure they do their business after the ball,” Horace instructed. “I don’t won’t a bunch of wholesale liquor passing hands right in the middle of our little festival.” “Don’t worry,” Sam reassured. “I told him to just put all his liquor jugs out back behind the big tent here till Carter comes by. After the ball, they’ll do their business, and won’t nobody be the wiser.” The others nodded casually in understanding. After a moment, Horace asked, “You sure that booze will be safe back there?” “I reckon so,” offered Sam. “Only ones even goin’ back there is them women that’s workin’ on the food.” Sam smiled slyly in Grover’s direction. “Grover, you reckon Hilda and them girls might be sneakin’ a nip or two here and there?” At this, all of the men exploded in laughter. That was a good one. The Main Event “Where in tarnation did all these people come from?” shouted Hilda Bailey as she blew at her stray bangs with her bottom lip. “Two hundred people, they said. Two hundred my foot! There’s ever’ bit of 350 people out there! Girls!” Hilda was in a furious panic, shooting from station to station, arranging, sorting, stacking, pouring. “Harrianne! Nelda! Get over here!” The two Auxiliary protégés were still young, and at first were both very eager to work with the legendary Hilda Bailey. Now, however, they shook at the sound of her voice. Like shy puppies, they crept cautiously closer to their supervisor. “You girls go mix up more punch. The mix is in the freezer, and the soda’s in a bunch of gallon jugs out back. That’s as far as I got unloadin’ em. Now git!” The two girls scurried off before Hilda could inflict any physical harm should she so choose. Now in a panic themselves, the girls split up. Nelda hit the freezer and cradled three frigid cartons of frozen punch mix. Harrianne exited the tent in search of the soda, which she did not find right away. Spinning around anxiously, she eyed her surroundings, needing desperately to find the soda and return to the kitchen as quickly as possible. After a few nervous moments, she saw them. Seven one-gallon jugs, unmarked, and sitting against the back of the tent, all filled with clear liquid. Hurriedly, she grabbed the first two and made her way back inside. “You girls comin’ this year?” yelled Hilda from the reception table. The two worked clumsily together, bumping into one another, tangling themselves in a frenzy of effort. As they began to combine the two components, Harrianne commented to Nelda nervously, “This soda ain’t got much fizz.” “Shhhh. You hush now!” whispered Nelda. “You wanna set her off again? This here is her prize-winning punch. Ain’t nobody even allowed to know what’s in it. Now just pour it up and keep to yourself with the rest.” Harrianne and Nelda dutifully finished their job and delivered the punch to Hilda. “Pour it in there!” ordered Hilda, pointing to a large silver bowl beneath a fountain of circulating punch. “Come on, now. Pour. I swear, it’s like talkin’ to a pair of three-legged turtles.” Upon completing their task, the two girls raced off, with Hilda still barking after them. “Go ahead and make up more, you hear? It’s hot. I’m hot!” She was speaking more to herself now. She looked around the reception area one last time before heading back to the kitchen. “Two hundred,” she said in disgust. “I oughta jerk a knot in somebody’s tail for this.” One by one, festival goers continued to enter the tent at the center of the grounds. As darkness flirted with the horizon, the lights around the tent were beginning to cast a silky glow on the faces of the early arrivers, contributing to the elegance that already surrounded them. Because of the unseasonably warm weather, the sides of the tent had been rolled up, allowing for a pleasant breeze. The ceremony would soon begin, a ceremony which would be (for the first time in Sera Bella history) witnessed by the general public, who now congregated curiously around wooden tables draped with starched white tablecloths. On stage, the Sera Bella Wind Ensemble and String Band was playing an eclectic mix of marching band and bluegrass arrangements. As Horace peeked through the curtains, he was overwhelmed with the turnout. He thought of the pictures along the Lodge’s main hallway. Perhaps he might one day earn a spot on that prestigious paneling. “Hey, Horace, is my tie on straight?” asked a disheveled Larry Delchamp. Doing what he could to straighten the mess of polyester and velour, Horace spotted a familiar face over Larry’s shoulder. “Jimmy!” he shouted, opening his arms for his favorite nephew. The gesture was politely returned. “Louise told me you were here. How have you been?” Wearing one of the two suits Jimmy had purchased with the help of CitiBank Visa, he almost passed for a doctor. But with Sera Bella’s newly crowned Bunny Queen on his arm and lipstick on his collar, he looked to Horace to simply be the same ole’ little Jimmy he bailed out of the slammer a few short years ago. From the mischievous smile on the Bunny Queen’s face, it was obvious how he had been. “Boys,” Horace said as he gathered his friends around. “You remember my sister’s boy, Jimmy? He’s put together quite a show for us tonight.” Those in arms’ reach leaned in to shake hands with their evening’s entertainment and welcome him to Sera Bella. “You find your way around okay?” Horace asked. “Looks like it to me,” Larry giggled, staring at the attractive young lady next to him. This drew an instant slap on the head from Lonny, who seemed to never be more than an arm’s length away. Horace quickly introduced his nephew to Larry and Lonny, as well as Raymond Pratt, Sam Claxton and Charlie Snodgrass. He would have also introduced them to Grover Bailey, but Horace didn’t want to wake him. “Uncle Horace,” Jimmy pulled him aside. “I was wondering if I could go ahead and get that check now, so we don’t have to worry about it after the event.” As Horace reached inside his jacket pocket, Jimmy felt a touch on the shoulder. “Excuse me. Dr. Preston, is it?” asked a timid Larry Delchamp, who still had not managed to right the level of his bowtie. “Yes, sir,” responded Jimmy as politely as his alter ego would allow. Larry continued. “On this whole hypnotizin’ thing, you aint’ able to, like, make us say stuff we don’t want nobody knowin’, right?” Jimmy laughed. This would be easier than he thought. “No,” he replied. “Of course not. Your mind will not allow you to cross any boundaries you feel important in a conscious state, even during a period of subconscious trance.” Larry resembled a mule staring at a new gate. Lonny broke in. “Y’all just have to overlook my brother. He’s a bit touched.” “I ain’t touched!” retorted Larry. “I’m just making sure that ain’t nobody gonna be pickin’ through my brain is all.” “Well, I can assure you,” said an amused Dr. Preston, “that I will in no way attempt to invade your privacy.” He grimaced at the thought of what he might find (or might not find) picking through Larry Delchamp’s brain. “And besides, Larry,” Lonny added, “you know being a doctor and all, this here man’s done took the hypnocratic oath. He had to swear to do right. Ain’t that so, Doctor?” Jimmy stole a glance at his uncle before replying. “Yes, that’s absolutely correct.” As Horace walked Jimmy to the head table, he handed him a check. “Sorry about those boys,” he offered. “Those two ain’t got half a mind between ‘em.” Jimmy laughed. For all the years of traumatic family episodes, he had to admit that he always kind of liked Horace. Maybe he would come back and visit when there was more time. Then again, maybe he would just do this show and try to avoid becoming part of another parade on his way out of town. As Horace walked away, Jimmy smiled at his date, then politely pulled out her chair and tried to remember her name. It was precisely at 7:00 pm and with great pomp and circumstance that Horace Williams gave the signal for the ceremony to begin. Immediately, the wind ensemble and string band ceased playing as silence fell over the curious crowd. On cue, a young and slightly overweight tuba player stood from his seat at the back of the makeshift stage. Pausing to remember the first few notes to a song he had committed to memory only a few days prior, he began to play in reverent solo John Phillips Sousa’s “Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.” At once, curtains on both sides of the tent’s back wall parted, as fifteen distinguished and stately noblemen walked to the stairs at the front of the stage, eight on the left, seven on the right. Grover Bailey was pre-positioned on the stage, as stairs would have presented a rather unceremonious obstacle. The men were dressed in tuxedos, navy blue, velvet-trimmed, and most still carrying the smell of the closet they had inhabited for the last twenty years. As they came to their place on stage, the Shriners formed perfect rank, standing rigidly at attention, side by side, shoulders back, chins up, chests out. Royal red fezzes were firmly seated at identical angles atop heads with carefully combed hair in various stages of recession. Not even the VFW was this polished. The sound of the sousaphone faded abruptly with a last note that sounded to Horace like the dying breath of an overweight goose. At this cue, the Potentate broke rank to find his place at the podium center stage. Taking hold of his gavel, Horace rapped it once, then twice. “Brotherly love, relief, and truth,” he said, louder than normal for the benefit of the “civilians” present. “Brotherly love, relief, and truth,” replied the others, still maintaining strict attention. As Horace began, Grover, who remained seated, began to nod off. “Honored members of the Ben Bali Shrine, in the presence of these witnesses, what say ye each one of your commitment to this community and to its people?” Again in unison, but with a bit less articulation, the men responded, “I am here to serve, and in so serving do strive for excellence.” “Then I presume you are a Noble,” continued Horace. With that, each man removed his fez. With the cadence that comes from years upon years of giving the same answer to the same question, the men replied with confidence. “I am so accepted by all men of noble birth.” With pride, Horace said, “Amen.” With pride, the men answered, “Amen.” With a wave of the musical director’s baton, the wind ensemble and string band instantly began the first notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” at which point the crowd instinctively rose and faced the large flag that had been placed in the rear corner of the tent. As they sang, the sound of a community in concert filled the canvas dome. “. . . and the home of the brave.” The voices lifted, crescendoing into an explosion of patriotic applause. Capitalizing on the moment, Horace leaned deep into the microphone and shouted over the applause, “Welcome, one and all, to the Grandistic Royal Ball of the Nobles of Mystic Ben Bali Shrine of Sera Bella!” More applause, more music from the wind ensemble and string band, and the game was afoot. In earlier years, the Ball served many purposes. It was a business meeting, an awards presentation, a year-end recap, and a chance to celebrate the many philanthropic efforts of the legendary Shriners of North America. Given the present circumstances, however, it made sense to limit the amount of “official” Shriner business at this year’s event. There weren’t really any awards left to give, and the year-end recap had long since been replaced with an annual memorial service for those faithful Shriners who had gone on to turn in their fezzes for red velvet wings. Instead, it had been decided that this event would be primarily a social endeavor, full of fun, music, and lots of food. As it turned out, there was quite an abundance of all three, especially the latter. Thanks to the Women’s Auxiliary, the night’s guests were treated to a seemingly endless deluge of hor d'ouerves and confections. The only item which seemed to constantly be in short supply was Hilda’s punch, obviously more popular than ever. Even Grover Bailey, who was certainly all too familiar with his wife’s trademark beverage, noted the obvious improvements to the taste. “It’s almost like . . .” Raymond Pratt wondered aloud as he smacked his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Mango!” interrupted Lonny Delchamp. “Tastes like mango to me!” Raymond’s face at first looked puzzled, but soon resolved into reflective agreement. It did taste like mango. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, or perhaps the taste truly bore a resemblance to the tropical fruit, of which there was no physical evidence in the cups, the bowl or otherwise. But either way, word spread quickly of the newly-discovered secret ingredient, now obvious to every punch connoisseur in line for their fourth and even fifth glass. “It’s so hot! Perhaps another glass,” suggested one lady. “It’s so good! I hear the cat’s out of the bag,” said another. “Oh, do tell.” “It’s the mango!” “The mango! Why, who would have thought? That clever Hilda Bailey. And it’s not even in season! However did she manage?” One by one they lined up, each with an empty glass waiting to be filled. Hilda had not had time to perform her usual taste test. She had been so busy. Even now, she wore a path from the kitchen to the punch table, moving her stocky legs back and forth, working in vain to meet the overwhelming demand for her secret recipe. Harrianne and Nelda dedicated themselves exclusively to the mass production of the punch, eventually using all seven of the unmarked gallon jugs behind the tent. The mood was . . . festive. Looking at his watch, Horace decided it was time to get on with the show. He had been so busy visiting with those seated near the stage that he had almost lost track of time. He eyed his yet untouched punch glass with thirsty determination. However, just as he brought the cup to his lips, he noticed two conspicuously empty chairs where Jimmy and the Bunny Queen had been during the opening ceremony. With disgust, he replaced the glass, still full, and set out to find his AWOL entertainment. Just outside the tent, he was approached by a tossed-looking couple making haste from the field designated as parking lot “E.” Jimmy Preston and his date, who’s moniker of Bunny Queen was quickly becoming true to form, were each struggling to appear nonchalant as they prepared to re-enter the tent. Horace’s anger flushed red across his face as he blocked their path. Surprised by their audience, the two lovers stopped dead in their tracks. Horace looked at his watch. Jimmy did the same. There were no words exchanged, only a not-so-innocent smile from Jimmy as he passed cautiously in front of his uncle to begin what might just be his last performance on Earth. The Show Once inside the tent, Horace struggled to mask his frustration as he made his way to the microphone. Once positioned, he worked hard to gain the noisy crowd’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!” He shouted and rapped his gavel several times. Finally, he had the floor. “I can’t thank you enough for being here this evening,” he began. “I know you’re all anxious to get on with the show, so without any further ado, let me introduce you to a very special guest. All the way from the prestigious University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, please welcome the esteemed Master Hypnotist, Dr. James C. Preston!” The crowd erupted with cheers and applause, as if they were welcoming the NASCAR points leader to the stage. Jimmy was taken back with the enthusiastic reception, but it also gave him confidence, something he was going to need to get this Zeppelin of a show off the ground. As the applause cooled to a low simmer, Jimmy straightened his tie and took the stage. In the back, near the serving tables, the catering crew took a break from their frantic efforts and sat down to enjoy the show. For the first time all night, Hilda Bailey, hopelessly parched, drank her first glass of punch. Downing it quickly, she immediately grabbed another. She had forgotten how good this stuff was. No wonder they had gone through so much of it tonight. After three consecutive glasses, Hilda settled back to watch the program. The lights were beginning to blur. Perhaps she was too old for this kind of work. She kicked off her shoes and sipped yet another glass. Horace still fumed as he took his seat next to a waiting Louise and her large blue ribbon. She placed a supportive hand around his arm. “Horace, honey,” she whispered. “You okay?” “I’m fine,” he grunted. “But I swear that boy’s enough to drive me to distraction.” “Here,” she said compassionately. “Have a glass of punch.” In the candlelight of the head table, Horace couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Louise looked. There was something different about her tonight. He just couldn’t quite put his hands on it. Finally, he sipped his punch, then noticed a peculiar aftertaste. Leaning to his right, he whispered to Charlie Snodgrass. “You taste this punch?” “Yeah. Why?” said Charlie, his eyes still fixed on the stage. “It taste funny to you?” “Mango,” offered Charlie. Horace stared at his glass, confused and still not convinced. “Hilda’s losing her touch,” he thought to himself. For the next twenty minutes, he watched with guarded curiosity as his nephew explained the nature of his little show, describing the concepts of hypnotic trance, including the mental, physical and psychological benefits from participating in such an exercise. Dr. Preston baited his audience with promises of lost weight, as well as victory over smoking, stuttering and shyness. He planted seeds of greed and vanity, all the while wrapping his hook with the colorful lure of self-improvement and a better state of well-being. Then he drew his “patients” closer with the reassurance that hypnotism was non-invasive, non-threatening and altogether safe. “When we are drunk,” he explained, “we lose many of our inhibitions. When we are hypnotized, we experience that same freedom and creativity, but remain guarded by the limits of our own prudence. Your sober subconscious will not allow you to do things that your inebriated conscious might. Put simply, you have the choice, unlike someone who has simply had too much to drink.” Horace had long ago dismissed all of this as bull malarkey, but had to admit that the tapes Jimmy had shown him were quite funny. If this crowd was willing to buy into this, then more power to them. Horace would just sit back and enjoy the show. He pushed his punch aside. It had clearly been sitting out too long. By now, Dr. Preston had recruited several notable members of the audience, including the sheriff, the Delchamp twins, and even Grover Bailey. Each was sitting in a line of chairs on the stage behind the podium. “What’s the matter with Grover?” Louise asked. “See him?” Horace squinted through the stage lights. “Nothin’, I don’t reckon. Why?” Charlie interjected. “Cause he’s grinnin’ bigger than a goat eatin’ briers.” Charlie and Louise were right. Horace hadn’t seen Grover that happy since Hilda spent two weeks with her sister in Michigan. He just sat there, hands in his lap staring straight ahead, smiling from ear to oversized ear. As Horace looked around, however, he noticed a change on other faces as well. Many people were acting . . . strange. Some seemed dazed and preoccupied, like their minds were somewhere else. Others were just outright giddy, laughing at everything that stupid nephew of his said. Something was going on. With newfound suspicion, Horace continued to watch the show. As he did so, Louise placed a hand on his knee under the table and gave him a seductive wink. This was unexpected. Horace began to sweat beneath his fez. Dr. Preston continued by instructing the men seated behind him, as well as anyone in the audience who wished, to focus on a now illuminated red strobe pulsing rapidly at center stage. On his command, the house lights dimmed and a subtle, yet intense music loop he ripped from the once popular television program “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” drifted softly from the speakers. The master hypnotist was able to quickly subdue his subjects. With a well-rehearsed script, he skillfully ushered them deeper into a state of intense relaxation. He explained that any noise at this point, any distraction, any applause, any laughter, would simply take them deeper. “Down, down, down you go,” he encouraged his participants. “Deeper, deeper, and deeper still.” As he finished counting backwards from ten to one, Horace watched in amazement as the men on stage, as well as a good number in the audience, slowly slumped over in their chairs, eyes closed, arms outstretched, and each apparently completely hypnotized. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Jimmy thought to himself at the sight of so many people slumped over in their chairs. Even with the college kids, it took a couple of rounds of script to take them under. These people sank like rocks! Maybe he still had it after all. Maybe everybody goes through a dry spell, and his was finally over. With a newfound confidence, Dr. James C. Preston decided to have some fun. As he made the decision, however, he eyed the frail-looking Grover Bailey. Okay, so not too much fun. That last thing he needed was another heart attack on his conscience. “For those of you who are not participating this evening, listen to me closely.” Dr. Preston continued with the show. “The people you see slumped over in their chairs are not asleep. But they are very relaxed. “In a few moments, I will begin to make suggestions for these people to follow, suggestions which may result in some rather humorous activity. Feel free to laugh, take pictures, whatever you like. This will only take them deeper into a state of hypnosis. I ask only that you not speak directly to them, as it might break their concentration.” With the back of his hand, Dr. Preston touched Tuff Cooley on the forehead. The two new recruits were stationed near the back of the tent, each one charged with holding the leashes of Starsky and Hutch. At the sight of their boss being selected for what they hoped would be something truly embarrassing, they gave first a hoop, then a holler. The two dogs jerked at the sound, no doubt reminded of their former hunting careers. “The gentleman I’m touching now,” Dr. Preston said, “is no longer a normal police officer. You are instead a member of a highly specialized experimental team called the duck patrol. That’s right, in just a moment when I snap my fingers, you will be a magnificent mallard, in charge of an entire flock of foul trained to spot crime from the air.” The crowd, anticipating what was about to happen, was filling the tent with laughter. “When I snap my fingers, you will quack like a duck, fly like a duck. You will be a duck.” Snap. Instantly, the large and normally very human Tuff Cooley rose from his seat and took his place center stage, flapping his arms furiously as he looked down from left to right in search of crime. The crowd roared with laughter. The deputies in the back had lost control of themselves, collapsing in nearby chairs and holding their sides, tears of laughter in their eyes. Starsky and Hutch watched faithfully in silence, their leashes now lying freely on the ground. Encouraging his flying subject, Dr. Preston gave constant verbal cues, filling the sheriff’s mind with images and motivations he knew would result in animated behavior. Commending the sheriff on his excellent patrol work, he instructed him to fly into his chair and relax. Upon the suggestion, Sheriff Cooley immediately straightened his wings and landed in his seat. Once in place, Dr. Preston touched his forehead again and simply said, “Sleep.” The sheriff reclaimed his initial slumped position. “Didn’t the Sheriff do a great job? Give him your applause, people, and take him down deeper. Deeper, deeper, and deeper still.” The crowd kindly accommodated the request. “People, we have a situation tonight. I’ve just learned that we’ve been invaded by Martians. That’s right, that’s right. The world is in extreme danger. But have no fear. We have with us tonight an elite fighting force trained for just such an occasion.” He touched Grover Bailey gently on the forehead. “This gentleman I’m touching now, when I snap my fingers, you will be the commander of an elite group of men known as the Martian Counter Attack Squad. You and your men will protect the people here tonight in the event of a Martian offensive.” Snap. “Sir?” Dr. Preston addressed the Squad Commander. Grover Bailey instantly opened his eyes and stood at strict attention, almost forcing Jimmy back into Larry Delchamp’s lap. “Sir?” he said again, struggling to regain his balance. “Sir, can you state your name, please?” In loud bursts, Grover offered, “I am Commander G. Wallace Bailey, Martian Counter Attack Squad, Division One, SIR.” The crowd was more than amused at the sight of the arthritic Grover Bailey now standing straight up, arms at his side, poised for action. “And Commander Bailey, what is your assignment?” Again, Grover shouted, “To protect civilians in the event of an attack from the Martians, SIR!” Dr. Preston touched Larry, Lonny and Sheriff Cooley. “You gentlemen I’ve just touched, you will be Commander Bailey’s new recruits when I snap my fingers.” Snap. The three men stood quickly, all at attention. “Commander, the recruits are all yours,” offered Dr. Preston. Suddenly, Grover turned and surveyed his new recruits with obvious disdain. Launching into a tirade of insults and orders, Commander Bailey began to whip his soldiers into shape. “Listen up, you bunch of pantywaist Momma’s boys. I don’t like the looks of you. I don’t like it one bit!” Larry turned his head to look at Grover. “Don’t you look at me, you hairy-lipped vermin! You think this is some kind of game?” Grover continued his verbal abuse. Larry began to cry. Lonny was laughing, which also drew a string of insulting admonishments from Grover. Surprised by the intensity with which Grover was playing his part, Jimmy thought to quickly change the direction of the exercise. “Commander, look out! The Martians are beginning to attack,” he warned. Instantly, the four men looked up with obvious alarm. At once, Grover shouted, “INCOMING!” With a strength he had long ago convinced himself he no longer possessed, a geriatric Grover Bailey threw the Delchamp twins to the ground while he and Tuff Cooley dove to join them. The crowd was beside themselves with laughter. Tears filled their eyes while screams of hysteria circulated among them. The sound, thought Jimmy, resembled that of a wrestling match. This was so much better than he had ever imagined it. After a few more minutes of various suggestions and even some crowd participation, it was time for Dr. Preston to begin winding down his program. He allowed his soon-to-be very embarrassed volunteers to rest comfortably in their chairs center stage, where they would remain for the rest of the show, still very much hypnotized. Just prior to bringing them and various members of the audience back from their states of hypnosis, however, Dr. Preston would plant in their minds certain suggestions which would (hopefully) result in some after-the-fact humor, even as he made his final statements. He began these remarks by reminding his audience once again of the power of hypnosis to deal with certain psychological issues in one’s life. “Perhaps,” he offered, “there are things in your life of which you are ashamed. Things you would like to change, but lack the courage to face.” He touched Grover Bailey. “Mr. Bailey, without saying what, is there something in your life of which you are ashamed or would like to change?” “Yes,” Grover said in stoic monotone. “Is this something for which you would like help?” “Yes,” Grover repeated as before. “Mr. Bailey, studies have shown that the best way to conquer your shame and fear is to face it head on. Therefore, when you awake from your sleep, that which shames you most will now be your proudest accomplishment. Every time you remember it, you will shout this accomplishment as loudly as you can, celebrating its presence in your life. Perhaps through your courage, you can defeat this feeling of guilt and shame. When I snap my fingers, you’ll stop. Now sleep.” He had time for one more, so he decided to open it up to the audience. “If you are in the crowd tonight and you miss who you once were, if you long for the energy and the lust for life you once enjoyed, listen closely. When I say the word ‘Chicago’ you will instantly become that which you miss the most. The person you used to be, you will be once again, as if time had never changed you. When I snap my fingers, you’ll realize what you’re doing, and sit down.” A muted snicker from the audience indicated that they were very anxious to see how this would play out. At once, Dr. Preston began the process of helping his subjects to resurface from their dive into the subconscious. As methodically as he took them down, he was now bringing them up, one slow step at a time. Soon, all members of the audience were awake, alert, and sitting up straight in their chairs, including the four men on stage. “Didn’t these folks do a wonderful job?” Dr. Preston cued the crowd. The audience instantly responded with resounding applause. The men on stage smiled timidly, not sure what exactly they had done to draw such an exuberant reaction. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you have learned tonight just how effective hypnosis can be at channeling your subconscious into – “ “Hey!” Dr. Preston was interrupted by a shout from Grover Bailey, still seated on stage behind him. All eyes shifted as Jimmy lowered the microphone to Grover’s mouth. “I peed my pants, and I’m proud of it!” Grover smiled a Polident grin as the crowd exploded in laughter. Jimmy was speechless. He was looking for something more like “I cheated at Bingo” or “Sometimes I can’t find my keys.” But not this! This was entirely too much information. This man had no subconscious limits at all! “Okay, Mr. Bailey. Thank you for sharing.” Jimmy backpeddled. “Let’s just fix you up right now.” Instantly, he snapped his fingers in front of Grover’s face. Waiting a few seconds, he took from the blank look in Grover’s eyes that the moment had passed and that perhaps it was safe to press on. “People all over the country are discovering the benefits of hypnosis from presentations just like this one,” Dr. Preston continued. “Why, just next week I’ll be in the great city of Chicago (he stressed the word) speaking to a convention of . . .” He paused long enough to discern what he thought was laughter from the back of the tent. “ . . . I’ll be speaking to a convention of . . .” With that, more laughter. Then suddenly, Jimmy could see the source of the disturbance. Hilda Bailey was marching - no swaying. Well, it was hard to describe exactly, but she was moving toward the stage, in bare stocking feet. Her tealength polyester dress was hiked up to her thighs, while the neck had been unbuttoned to reveal far more than anyone cared to see. Horace looked at Louise in astonishment. Gasps broke out across the audience, followed by attempts to stifle bursts of uncontrollable laughter. Charlie Snodgrass offered almost under his breath, but loud enough for those at his table to hear, “That woman’s got a swing like an ax on a pendulum.” Sam Claxton said (without thinking), “That’s one big fat ax.” “Boys!” Horace admonished. Louise laughed so hard she snorted. By now, Hilda had found her way to the microphone, which Jimmy handed over, more out of fear than anything else. With a morbid suggestiveness that simultaneously evoked thoughts of both Marilyn Monroe and Dom Delouise, Hilda began pulling out each of her fourteen bobby pins, the whole time sporting pouty lips and swiveled hips. Throwing her hair back with a toss of the head, she motioned to Martha Mavins, who was still seated at the piano from earlier in the evening. “Martha, give me ‘Loved By You’ in G.” Martha, being as afraid of Hilda as poor Nelda and Harrianne (who currently stood in the door of the kitchen with their mouths hanging open) dutifully began to chord what she could remember of a song she hadn’t even heard in years, let alone played. With every chord change, Hilda shifted the position of her hips, a gesture which in some women would be considered enticing. For Hilda, the act was nothing less than violent. “I wanna be lllloovved by yyyoouu.” She slurred the lyrics in a whispered contralto. No one was quite sure what to do. Even Horace, the event’s chairman and producer, was at a loss. He looked to Jimmy, who simply shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Horace mouthed to him, “DO SOMETHING!” “Nobody ellssssseee but yyyoouuu.” Hilda continued, with the hips and the lips and the dress that struggled to meet the demands of its entranced owner. Snap. Snap. Snap. Jimmy tried repeatedly to right the situation by ending the hypnotic episode, which was causing much more psychological damage than it was correcting. Yet his attempts were met with no response. Hilda turned to find her husband seated behind her. With knee highs now around her ankles, Hilda drew closer to the lanky, bald man. Those who were still watching like witnesses to a gruesome traffic accident, wanting to look away but somehow unable to do so, instantly worried that she might try to sit in his lap. Such an event would surely be the end of poor Grover Bailey. Luckily, just before Hilda had a chance to crush her brittle husband beneath the weight of her burning love, Grover’s great accomplishment presented itself once again, and he quickly rose to his feet shouting, “I did it! I did it again! I peed my pants! Whohoooo!” Perhaps it was the relief that everyone felt at knowing Grover would not be flattened by the love of his life, but oddly enough, the crowd actually clapped this time for Grover, as if congratulating him on his outstanding achievement. Horace was on his feet. Someone had to put a stop to this madness. He rushed the stage, his arms flailing in panic. He screamed wildly, his voice cracking with an urgent cry for order. Logically, if someone had been hypnotically charged with defending the universe against attacking Martians, it is understandable that Horace’s actions might have been misconstrued as a military offensive. It should have been no surprise, therefore, when Sheriff Cooley, upon seeing Horace charge the stage, announced that the Martians had begun their attack and called for a full frontal retaliation. As the sheriff blew his whistle, two things happened. First, Larry and Lonny Delchamp dove from the stage, tackling Horace “in the numbers” and sending him backward across the head table. Second, Starsky and Hutch, their leashes lying on the floor unattended by the still laughter-stricken deputies, took their familiar audible cue as a signal for action. As highly-trained canine professionals, the two Bluetick hounds wasted no time rushing toward the stage, choosing as their route of attack the underside of every table in their path. To further complicate matters, a number of punch-happy spectators, in their attempts to clear a path for the coming onslaught of Sera Bella canine forces, somehow collided with one another, toppling to the ground and knocking over two of the three rabbit cages on display near the tent entrance. Once the hound dogs realized that there was live game afoot, training gave way to instinct, and Starsky and Hutch reassigned themselves to bunny duty, declaring a state of hot pursuit. It was at this moment that those present could be divided into two basic groups. The first group was made up largely of those people who were stricken with fear, paralyzed by the chaos of lights and screams and crashing table tops and frantic rabbits and determined dogs. The second group included those who were laughing so uncontrollably that any further action was simply out of the question. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help. They just simply couldn’t stop laughing long enough to move. Horace was still trying to pick himself up off the ground after having been sacked by the Delchamp twins, who most people might have forgotten still held the honor of being Sera Bella High School’s last two All-State linebackers. Trying desperately to clear the fog inside his head, Horace searched the stage for his nephew. Cowering in a folding chair with his elbows on his knees, Jimmy Preston was a mess. Like a whipped puppy, he sat alone, defeated. After repeated attempts to settle the crowd over the PA, he had finally given up. His snapper was broke. “Jimmy!” Horace yelled. “Don’t just sit there like teats on a boar hog! TURN THIS THING OFF!!!!” “I can’t, Uncle Horace,” Jimmy yelled back. “I’ve tried everything I know to do. It’s almost like they’re not even really hypnotized.” “Then what in the Sam Hill’s making ‘em act this way?” Almost as soon as he had posed the question, the answer hit Horace like a ten-pound sack of potatoes. He grabbed an empty punch glass and sniffed it. How could he have missed it? “I don’t know,” admitted Jimmy. “It’s almost like they’re all . . .” “ . . . DRUNK!” Horace finished Jimmy’s statement. “Huh?” Jimmy was confused. “They’re all drunker than Cooter Brown.” “All of them?” asked Jimmy. “All of them. Even . . . Louise!” Horace watched in horror as his loving wife now danced atop the head table, her blue ribbon blowing in the breeze. She had also managed to somehow secure the Bunny Queen crown, which she now held tight to her head with one hand as she waved at Horace with the other. “Hey, Honey!” she shouted in delight. As Horace rushed toward her, he was almost plowed over by a screaming Mona Watkins, speeding through the narrow rows on her red medical scooter as she tried in vain to elude a very intoxicated Larry Delchamp in the official Bunny Day Brickyard pace car. The near miss spun Horace wildly, leaving him disoriented and dizzy. In the distance, he could hear Grover, who was still very proud of his bladder control issues. He too was now on the run as Hilda had abandoned her microphone and begun to stalk her man. “Run Grover, run,” Horace thought. As he tried to gain his bearings, Horace noticed two young girls in Auxiliary aprons huddled together in the door of the kitchen, sobbing and clinging to one another for dear life. Finally, he located the head table. Louise was gone. But Charlie was there, as was Sam and Raymond, all watching the mayhem and having quite a time of it. Horace begged their help, trying desperately to find his wife. “Charlie, Sam, where’d Louise go?” They didn’t answer. They just kept laughing. “Raymond, where’s my wife?” Horace pleaded. More laughter. Hysterical laughter, like they hadn’t even heard him. Disgusted and frantic, Horace turned to continue his search. “Hey, Horace!” Raymond Pratt yelled over the pandemonium. Horace turned back, hopeful. “This is the most fun we’ve had in years!” “No!” Sam Claxton countered with an arm across Raymond’s chest. “This is the most fun . . . ever!” The three of them lost themselves once again in euphoric amusement. Horace spun helplessly at the center of it all, searching to find Louise, and trying to gain some grip on a situation that was far out of control. His perfect plan, his community’s revival, his chance at greatness, all floated lifeless now at the bottom of a high octane punch bowl. Giving up, he dropped hopelessly to the ground. He sat still for a few moments, then grabbed the nearest glass of punch, and drank. The Morning After Juan Valdez had not yet produced a cup of coffee strong enough to pull Louise from her punch-induced haze. Struggling to find the kitchen table, she hobbled along, buried deep within her ancient fuzzy blue housecoat with matching slippers. She hid behind its worn collar, like a veil of shame, shame for what she still couldn’t remember, and hoped she never would. As Horace watched her, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. He actually considered not even telling her, but then thought better of it. What if someone had taken pictures? Oh, Lord help us all. Pictures! At the thought, Horace had closed the blinds, which (according to Charlie Snodgrass) Louise might actually appreciate anyway. He had also put away the blue ribbon and the big-eared cake pan. It was best for Louise that there be no visible reminder of the tragic events that took place the night before. At least not for a while. He watched her now, through the steam of his own stronger-than-normal cup of coffee. She had worked so hard these past few weeks. They all had. Every last member of this blessed community had pulled together and done something wonderful. They had beaten the odds and succeeded at pulling off the most successful Bunny Days Festival ever, even if it had culminated in a cataclysmic disaster of Biblical proportions. “You okay?” he asked. She moaned. “Mind if I turn on the TV? Ray’s granddaughter should be on soon.” “Go ahead,” she mumbled. “It can’t hurt any worse.” Horace wondered whether she meant her head or her pride. He turned on the television. Mollie Pratt was already on. Behind her was a shot of beautiful downtown Sera Bella. “For years, the Bunny Days Festival of Sera Bella was among the most well-attended events in the mid state,” she reported. “Though absent for some time, this legendary celebration has returned, thanks to a respected group of local leaders who decided to break out the tents, strike up the band, and bring back the glory of days gone by.” The report was well produced, Horace thought. It continued for just over two minutes and featured various shots of children and bunnies and even some short footage of the Bunny Day Brickyard. There was, mercifully, no mention of the Ball, nor of the shocking events that took place therein. “We asked many of the festival goers just what it is about this event that makes it so special,” Molly concluded. “Each one agreed, it’s all about Sera Bella, a town with the absolute purest of motives; people with strong backs bearing together the burdens of one another’s struggles. They are devoted to God and country. They are rooted and real.” The camera cut instantly to a proud Ephram Tanner, who looked straight into the lens declaring, “And the rest is history.” “For News Channel Four, I’m Mollie Pratt.” Horace turned down the volume. Louise placed a hand on Horace’s shoulder. He returned a knowing smile of thanks. Even as a drunken table dancer, she was still the love of his life, and he was thankful to have her. In the background, a quiet television continued on with no real audience. “In other news, a local bar owner is being held this morning on fraud charges for allegedly trying to sell soda as alcohol. The man was arrested last night after an apparent dispute with a Winona . . .” Click. Horace hit the power button before following Louise out of the room. “How’s Grover and Hilda, by the way?” Louise thought to ask. “Still asleep, I’m sure.” Horace answered. “They’ll be fine.” “Honey, I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way you hoped,” Louise offered as compassionately as her hangover would allow. “Oh, I think they worked out just fine,” Horace admitted. “Besides, there’s always next year.” The End