June 5, 2006
Rhonda Farr had two Peters in her life: the Peter she loved but could not have, and now the white rabbit, which she, not unlike Alice in Wonderland, seemed destined to chase down the hole. But Alice's rabbit was not named Peter. The only Peter Rabbit Rhonda had known was the one in the storybook by Beatrix Potter, a common brown rabbit with a white fluffy tail, who just couldn't stay out of poor Mr. McGregor's garden.
On the other hand, Rhonda's Peter Rabbit was Ernestine Florucci's rabbit: all white and, as she would tell the police, about six feet tall.
"A rabbit?" the state troopers would ask, hands poised to scribble notes in black pads. "Six feet tall? Are you sure?"
Though the police were skeptical, Ernestine's mother, Trudy, believed Rhonda's story; she believed her but refused to forgive her.
The lives of Ernestine, Trudy, and Rhonda---maybe the lives of everyone in Pike's Crossing---had changed forever in about three minutes. The time it takes to soft-boil an egg.
It was well past Easter when Peter Rabbit appeared to Rhonda, swooping away little Ernestine. It was the fifth of June, and Rhonda had pulled into Pat's Mini Mart to fill her tank so she could make it to a job interview in Burlington that afternoon. She was running late, but she needed to stop, there was nothing in the tank but fumes. She also thought she might see Peter. Rhonda had been nearly out of gas all weekend, waiting until today to stop, because she knew Peter would be at the garage.
Visiting him before the interview, even just a quick Hey,how's tricks, Ronnie? would give her a little jump start. She avoided his house because then she'd have to make small talk with Tock, come up with some excuse for stopping by, and, most painful of all, Suzy would come out and circle around her, jumping up and down---a cherubic reminder of the futility of Rhonda's situation.
It was a perfect early-June day, the temperature hovering in the mid-seventies. Rhonda drove with her windows open, inhaling the scent of newly mown grass and just-opened lilacs in people's yards. The campgrounds around Nickel Lake had opened on Memorial Day and Rhonda could smell the smoke from the campfires. Brightly colored blow-up toys hung from hooks on the rafters in front of Pat's: sea monsters, inner tubes, a small yellow raft, and a grinning crocodile with handles and cup holders. Overpriced bundles of camp wood were stacked below. Two ice machines stood to the left of the front door and a sign in the window promised cold beer, camping supplies, and night crawlers inside. Summer was here. And there was Rhonda, overdressed in a pressed white shirt and khaki suit. She eyed the crocodile longingly.
The interview she was probably going to be late to wasn't even for a job she particularly wanted. It was in her field (she'd graduated two weeks before with a BS in biology) and would look good on her résumé: research assistant for a University of Vermont study of zebra mussels---invasive mollusks that were hell bent on taking over Lake Champlain, encrusting water pipes and shipwrecks on its floors, crowding out the natives.
Pat's Mini Mart was the only place in Pike's Crossing to buy gas. It was also close to Nickel Lake, so they got a lot of business from campers and folks with summer cottages. Pat's was also rumored to be the best place in the area to buy lottery tickets. They'd had a jackpot winner two weeks before---two hundred fifty thousand dollars---and a five thousand dollar winner before that.
Rhonda would later learn that it was the lottery tickets Trudy Florucci stopped for that day. She carried her lucky numbers in the pocket of her acid-wash denim jacket along with enough money for four tickets and a pack of menthol cigarettes, the no-name brand that was cheaper than regular brands like Kool, which was what Trudy smoked when her husband was alive and she could afford such luxuries. Trudy would tell all of this to one of the state troopers, spilling out painful little details of her life to an utter stranger at the most awkward of moments---and it would make Rhonda cringe. As if Trudy had opened her mouth, pulled back her cheek, and shown the cop a raw and seeping canker sore.
Pat's husband, Jim, was the one who pumped the gas at the full-service station. Full service was a funny way of putting it, Rhonda thought, because Jim never washed the windshield and when asked to check the oil, he grumbled and banged around under the hood so ferociously you were sure never to ask him to do it again. That day, Jim, who was skeletally thin and alarmingly tall, sauntered out in his blue coveralls, looking especially bored. His dark hair was slicked back and he wore several days of stubble.
"Fill her up today?" he asked, just staring out over the roof of Rhonda's car. He swatted at a bug by his left ear.
Rhonda nodded up at him from the open window of her blue Honda. She smiled, but he did not seem to see. Jim unscrewed the gas cap, selected the grade---regular (he didn't bother asking)---and began to fill her tank.
"Peter around?" Rhonda asked, trying not to sound too hopeful as she peered into the garage.
"Took the day off," Jim said, and Rhonda felt her heart sink. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she told herself.
"All by myself here," Jim said, sounding a little bitter. He rubbed at his earlobe. The bug had gotten him after all---probably a blackfly, it had been a terrible year for blackflies.
Pat was out getting her hair done, Rhonda would learn later, which was why, when Trudy Florucci pulled up in the rusted-out Corsica, parking in front of the ice machines, Jim left the pump running to go . . .