Saturday, April 23—9:47A.M.
In her darker moments Abby Donovan had often fantasized that her career of choice might lead her to become intimately acquainted with the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” But she’d never guessed she’d end up embracing the traditional uniform of working women the world over—the bunny costume.
She’d started her morning safely tucked away in an upscale bookstore’s version of a greenroom. It didn’t look anything like the greenrooms at the Today show or even Book World Weekly. There were no comfy sofas or silver-plated trays of warm, gluten-free muffins and organic fruit. There were no fawning handlers asking if there was anything they could do to make her more comfortable while she waited for her cue to take the stage.
There was only a desk littered with mountains of yellowing publishing house catalogues and a creaky folding chair crammed between two towering stacks of boxes. Boxes of books that were probably going to be returned to the publisher for credit without ever being opened. The open door at the back of the room gave her an all too clear view of a bathroom that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since the first season of Survivor.
Okay, so it wasn’t really wasn’t a greenroom at all, just an oversize storage closet.
Abby had sat hunched in the cold metal folding chair while she waited to be summoned, nervously eyeing the boxes of books and wondering how long it would take someone to find her if they toppled over on top of her. Despite the soothing strains of what sounded like The Worst of Yanni being piped through the overhead speakers, her nerves were jittering like she’d had a triple shot of espresso in her Skinny Caramel Macchiato instead of her usual double. She’d never been particularly prone to stage fright, but lately just the prospect of leaving her apartment for a trip to the corner bodega made her break out in icy beads of flop sweat. She stole a look at her watch, then sighed.
Maybe they figured if they left her there long enough, she’d start scrubbing the rust stains from the cracked vinyl around the toilet bowl.
Desperate for something to occupy both her hands and her mind, she reluctantly lowered her gaze to the book lying in her lap.
The perky little gold seal on the front of the dust jacket announced to the world that both the book and its author were Something Special. That they had been chosen. Annointed. Smiled down upon by the benevolent goddess of Mount Harpo herself—Oprah Winfrey.
Being chosen for Oprah’s book club was a little like being struck by lightning at the precise moment you won the lottery. It left you dazed by your own (presumably undeserved) good fortune and basking in a spotlight that faded all too quickly, leaving you blinded by its glare. Like most lottery winners, you were likely to end up going bankrupt within six months. And like most people who are struck by lightning, you had a ninety percent chance of survival, but you were never going to be exactly the same.
Four years later, Abby was still waiting to see if she would make it.
Hoping to avoid the humiliation of being caught reading a book she had authored she flipped the book over. A younger, glossier version of herself smiled up at her from the back of the dust jacket. It wasn’t hard for her to eye the photo with the critical eye of a stranger. The publicist provided by her publisher had chosen her wardrobe, her makeup, even her hairstyle for the photo session. It had taken the stylist over an hour to tame her naturally curly bob into a shining cap of golden brown hair.
She could still remember the Italian photographer urging her to try and look sensitive, successful, and vaguely sexy all at the same time. In hindsight, Abby thought she looked unbearably smug and vaguely constipated.
Abby sprang guiltily to her feet, fumbling for the book before it could slide onto the floor. Being caught mooning over your own picture was only slightly less humiliating than being caught reading your own book.
“Ms. Donovan,” she corrected, remembering enough of her social graces to fix a cheerful smile on her lips. “Abigail Donovan. But you can call me Abby.”
Her long-awaited deliverer was a tall, thin creature in a faded Coldplay T-shirt. The girl’s asymmetrical haircut had been dyed Elvis black and accented with a bright shock of purple bangs.
Despite the pierced eyebrow, the tattoo of a fearsome serpent wrapped around her wrist, and the name tag branding her as “Natalie” (which assured bookstore customers she was there to help them), the girl didn’t look old enough to be reading Harry Potter, much less selling it.
She popped her chewing gum, eyeing Abby with the sullen air of cynicism that could only be achieved by those with nothing to be cynical about. “The manager sent me to tell you it’s time for your reading, Miss Donnelly.”
This time Abby didn’t waste her breath correcting her. Instead, she dutifully followed the girl’s nonexistent rear end in its size zero Gap jeans from the room, giving the hem of her own sweater a furtive tug to make sure it was still hiding the waistband of her Spanx.
She had chosen her attire with great care. In the past few months she’d grown far too comfortable in the blocked writer’s uniform of fuzzy socks and coffee-stained sweats. The tasteful beige of her cashmere mock-turtleneck sweater perfectly complemented the warm chocolate hue of her wool pencil skirt. She had even invested in a shiny new pair of Stuart Weitzmans, hoping the flirty pair of nude pumps would scream successful beyond your wildest dreams instead of desperate to recapture former glory.
As they traveled down a short hallway lined with cluttered cork bulletin boards, Abby heard a sound she hadn’t heard for a very long time—the excited murmur of voices and the rustling of a crowd growing restless with anticipation. She relaxed her death grip on her book, her confidence growing with each step. Apparently, she had wasted her time and her energy worrying over nothing. Her readers had always flocked to her signings and readings in the past. She should have known they wouldn’t forget her so quickly. A gracious smile curved her lips as she prepared to greet them.
She followed her escort right into the unforgiving glare of the overhead fluorescents. The rustling died and a collective sigh of disappointment washed over her. Her eyes adjusted just in time to watch the hope fade from the dozens of tiny little faces turned in her direction.
“She’s not Biff!” a high-pitched voice wailed.
“You’re right, Brandon,” a deeper voice crooned. “She’s nobody. But if you’ll be a good boy for a little while longer, Biff will come hopping along very soon.”
That’s when Abby realized they hadn’t emerged among the racks of overpriced stationery and tasteful displays of Godiva chocolate she had passed on the way in, but in the children’s section of the bookstore. And that the large crowd—composed exclusively of fidgeting preschoolers and a handful of long-suffering parents—wasn’t waiting for her.
An enormous banner hung over their rapt little heads. It featured a watercolor illustration of a rather fey-looking rabbit in a flowered apron serving tea to a gathering of forest creatures that included a shy fawn and a simpering hedgehog. According to the elaborate script etched across the top of the banner, their gracious host was none other than Biff the Bunny.
“My publicist didn’t mention there was another event scheduled for today,” Abby murmured to Natalie as she was forced to step over a sulking toddler huddled on a beanbag chair shaped like a toadstool, then duck beneath the bottom of the banner to avoid being slapped in the face.
Although she hated to admit it, even to herself, she’d been so excited to hear from her publicist after having the woman duck her phone calls for nearly a year that she probably wouldn’t have noticed if she’d been informed the store had booked a spectral Margaret Mitchell to sign Gone with the Wind.
“Didn’t you see the full-page ad we ran in the Times?” the clerk asked her.
“Um … no. But my publicist did fax over the in-house newsletter featuring my upcoming appearance.” Abby’s picture had been so small she’d had to squint to recognize herself.
“Well, Claire Carroll, the author of Biff the Bunny, is coming to do a reading today. She dresses up as Biff and reads her stories to the kids. The kids eat it up and most of the parents use it as an excuse to dump the little monsters on us so they can go blow their credit limit at Restoration Hardware. They were lined up outside the doors before dawn this morning.”
Abby stole a glance over her shoulder at Biff’s eager audience, wondering if she’d actually sank so low as to be jealous of a fictional rabbit. She nearly walked into Natalie’s back as the girl stopped in front of a swinging metal door situated just behind the Alternative Sex section.
“Here you go. We’ve got you all set up in the conference room.”
Right before the clerk swept open the door, Abby caught a glimpse of a piece of college-ruled notebook paper taped to it. The words MEET THE AUTHOR had been scrawled on the paper, along with her name and the title of her book. There was no mention of the book being an Oprah pick. No hint that she had come this close to winning the Pulitzer.
The conference room was long and narrow. A battle-scarred podium with a drooping microphone attached to it sat on the right side of the room. Someone had optimistically arranged two dozen metal folding chairs in a semicircle around the podium. Only one of those chairs was occupied.
An elderly man wearing a pair of hearing aids was slumped in the chair, idly flipping through a copy of Abby’s book. Judging by his exaggerated yawn, he was not impressed with what he found. Or it was time for his afternoon nap.
Ignoring the abrupt plunge of her heart into the toes of her overpriced pumps, Abby squared her shoulders. If she’d learned anything from being the only daughter of an army drill sergeant and a bipolar mother, it was that the show must go on. An audience of one was still an audience. If this man cared enough to attend her reading, then he deserved a performance worthy of Carnegie Hall.
Natalie began to back toward the door. “I’ll be right outside if you need me. I have to go help my boss herd the rug rats. A couple of kids were nearly trampled at Biff the Bunny’s last appearance.”
Abby was still marveling over the fact that a rabbit named Biff could generate carnage previously only equated with a Who concert when the old man jerked to attention, his head swiveling around like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. “Biff the Bunny? Biff the Bunny is going to be here?”
He sprang to his feet and rushed past them, leaving the metal door swinging in his wake. Abby and Natalie stared stupidly after him for a moment before shifting their wide-eyed gazes back to each other. Natalie tucked a pinkie between her lips, her world-weary facade cracking just long enough to reveal a trace of compassion … or was it pity?
Noting that the rest of the girl’s black-painted fingernails had already been gnawed down to the quick, Abby managed a you-win-some/you-lose-some shrug for her benefit. “It’s all right. Really. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice subway ride to Queens on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Besides, writers can never spend enough time in bookstores, can they? I’ll just hang around for a little while. Browse the New Book section. Or maybe the Alternative Sex section. These days one never knows when one might need to find an alternative to sex.” She blinked rapidly, desperately wishing she hadn’t left her faux Hermès bag—and her knock-off Prada sunglasses—locked in a desk drawer in the storage closet.
Natalie hesitated, plainly torn between her sympathy for Abby’s plight and her desperate desire for escape. Before she could bolt, the metal door came swinging open again. A heavyset woman with short-cropped sandy blond hair came sweeping in. She wore a rumpled blue polo shirt, neatly pressed khakis and a name tag that identified her as Inga, the store’s manager. Her broad Teutonic face was flushed and she had a shapeless lump of fur that looked like the deflated carcass of a German shepherd draped over one arm.
“Natalie!” the woman exclaimed, her relief nearly palpable. “There you are! Thank God! What size do you wear?”
“Zero,” Abby said at the exact moment Natalie said, “Two.”
“Oh, crap.” The woman’s face fell as she gave the carcass draped over her arm a despairing look. “This thing would swallow you whole.”
Abby eyed the mangy wad of fur dubiously. “It looks as if it’s already swallowed more than one victim.”
The store manager blinked at her owlishly from behind the rims of her oversize glasses. “Who are you?”
“This is Mrs. Davenport,” Natalie informed the woman before Abby could reply. “You know—the lady who was supposed to do the other reading today.”
Abby extended her hand. “Abigail Donovan. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to thank you for your hospitality.”
The woman swept her dazed gaze over the empty half circle of chairs. “You must be finished.”
“You might say that,” Abby said dryly, letting her hand fall back to her side.
The manager blinked several times in quick succession, as if to snap herself out of a trance. “I hope you’ll forgive me for pawning you off on Natalie here, Miss Donovan. I’m just so flustered today. It’s not often the store gets a visit from an author as successful as Claire Carroll, especially way out here in Queens. Most of the major publishers send their big names to the stores in Manhattan.” As Abby’s already pained smile vanished altogether, Inga froze with her fingers still curved into the air quotes she had used to emphasize big names.
Before she could stammer out an apology that would only embarrass them both, a collective groan drifted through the door. It was the tragic sound of dozens of tiny hearts breaking all at once.
The manager slumped against the wall, adding her own groan to theirs. “Oh God. What am I going to do? It’s Claire Carroll. I’ve been on the phone with her publicist all morning. Her flight from Bermuda has been delayed. She’s not going to make the reading.” She raked a hand through her hair, leaving it standing on end. “I just had Stefan tell them Biff the Bunny was going to be late. I was afraid to tell them she—I mean he—wasn’t coming at all. What if they riot?”
Mentally assaulted by an image of raging preschoolers swinging from that obscenely large banner and hurling their beanbag toadstools at a S.W.A.T. team in full riot gear, Abby had to bite back her first genuine smile of the day.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, turning toward the door. “I should probably just go and get out of your way so you and Natalie can deal with this problem without any distractions.”
Abby turned back to discover a shrewd glint had overtaken the panic in the manager’s eyes. “What size are you?” the woman demanded.
That’s when Abby realized the limp carcass draped over her arm wasn’t roadkill scraped off the Queensboro Bridge after all, but a Biff the Bunny costume, probably shipped directly from Claire Carroll’s publisher so it would be there in time for her appearance.
“Oh no,” Abby said, shaking her head and backing toward the door. “You can’t ask me to impersonate an author.”
“You wouldn’t be impersonating an author because you are an author,” the woman pointed out, her voice softening on a wheedling note. “You’d be impersonating a bunny. All you’d have to do is read Biff the Bunny’s Adventures in Carrotland and hand out some candy. How hard would that be?”
“But I didn’t come here to read Biff the Bunny’s Adventures in Carrotland,” Abby protested, her own desperation growing. “I came here to read my novel.” She flipped the book in her hand around, hopefully displaying her literary equivalent of a glamour shot. “You know—the one I wrote.”
Natalie shook her head disapprovingly and popped her gum. “I don’t think the rug rats would like that. Last week one of the parents threatened to sue Corporate because we let the story hour volunteer read Where the Wild Things Are. Claimed the Things were too wild.”
The manager seized Abby’s arm, having saved her most persuasive argument for last. “If I could squeeze my ass into this thing, don’t you think I would?”
Abby closed her eyes to escape the woman’s pleading look, but all she could see was a circle of hopeful little faces shining up at her. The little boy in the children’s section had been right. She wasn’t Biff the Bunny. She didn’t even seem to be Abigail Donovan the Bestselling Novelist anymore. She was nobody. But it was still within her power to keep the dreams of those children alive. To preserve their innocence for just a little while longer so they could believe a fey bunny who wanted nothing more out of life than to tend his carrot garden and have tea with his friends could actually survive in this ruthless world.
Opening her eyes, she tossed her own book into one of the folding chairs, where it promptly slid facedown onto the floor, hiding Oprah’s seal of approval.
“Where can I change?” she asked grimly, already knowing the answer before Natalie Who Was There to Help Her and the grateful manager began to wrest her cashmere sweater over her head.
© 2011 Teresa Medeiros