This week, a short story in the new issue of Cosmonauts Avenue turns the flashlight onto a slumber party, and not the fantasy pillow-fight and popcorn kind, but the more true-to-life kind, complete with paranormal library books, urban legends, sneaking out, and scaring the crap out of each other. “Bunny Man” by Simone Person tells a story that is at once nostalgic and chilling, that recalls the nervy period between adolescence and womanhood, that era of awkwardness and peer pressure, when girls test their invincibility and independence and sometimes go too far.
Sheri shakes me awake. She’s half out of her sleeping bag, a flashlight pressed under her chin. It’s spreading shadows across her fleshy face. Most of her sleepover had focused on going through the library books she checked out of the supernatural and paranormal section. We copied down notes about the Bunny Man on the pilfered legal pads from my mom’s home office. Every so often Sheri would look up and tell me a new part of the mythos. He had the power of illusion and liked to isolate his victims. Most people didn’t even know he was stalking them until it was too late, his breath on their neck and the cold metal of his axe against their skin, ready to slice.
Sheri and the narrator Denise are in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, friends mostly out of the proximity of their houses and the buddy system, what Sheri calls an “arranged friendship.” Sheri is one of the most popular girls in school, with the coolest outfits and purses to match, who acts old beyond her years and calls her parents by their first names. Denise is tall and athletic, the biggest girl in her grade; she spends summers at karate camp and takes pride in running a nine-minute mile. It’s the kind of childhood friendship that probably has an end date as the girls grow more and more into themselves, this summer before high school likely its last.
The dynamic that Person crafts between Sheri and Denise is one of the strongest aspects of the story. Sheri seems the ringleader type, strong-willed and reckless, with a bit of the bully in her. Denise is quieter and brainier, and although she affects a tough, I-don’t-care attitude, it’s apparent to the reader that Denise does care what her friend does and what she thinks of her. She cares, and deeply. In a final heartbreaking layer to the friendship, it seems that Denise has a crush on Sheri, although in the confusion of awakening sexuality she may not be fully aware of it yet. Person reveals this in small moments, like when the sight of Sheri’s thighs while changing makes Denise’s mouth go dry, or when Sheri’s voice makes Denise’s neck go hot like there’s “an Atomic Fireball lodged in there.”
While Person is weaving this drama of friendship and attraction, she’s also telling a story of peer pressure and influence, fearlessness and vulnerability, all with the backdrop of the legend of Bunny Man, an axe-wielding serial killer with supernatural powers who dresses in a bunny suit. (Basically the story of female adolescence, right?) The girls wait till after midnight, dress in black, and sneak out of the house, heading to the tunnel behind Sheri’s house where Bunny Man is rumored to hide between killings. It’s here that Person’s story expands upon the general horribleness of being a teenager and turns into a true horror story, taking us into a world where wanting to grow up battles wanting to go home, where a friendly face can be an illusion, where your deepest desires can be used against you. Person’s tale is itself worthy of telling at a slumber party, the kind of scary story in which you recognize the setting, and recognize yourself, and by the time you think to look over your shoulder, it’s too late. There it is, the cool of the axe, the breath on your neck.
Sheri says, There’s something I want to show you. “Can’t you just tell me on the walk back?” I ask. Her face shimmers in the heat, and she says, Come on, unless you’re too chicken. “What? You actually find the Bunny Man or something?” She reminds me he’s as real as we want him to be. I don’t want him to be real, I want to leave. We can go back to Sheri’s. I’ll call my mom to pick me up. My house will be warm and far away from here. I’ll tell my mom everything. We’ll stay on the couch watching infomercials until I fall asleep, my head in her lap as she strokes my hair, like she used to do when I was a kid.
I tell Sheri all this, but she says we’ve come too far now to go back, and I have to stop being such a baby some time.