When Tony first spotted the jackalope, he nearly choked on his pastrami on rye.
He’d been eating his lunch on the loading dock of the mattress factory where he worked. Once he’d cleared his windpipe and caught his breath, Tony hopped down and took a step towards the chain link fence that separated the mattress factory from the grassy knoll in front of the neighbouring potato chip plant. He blinked his eyes, squinted against the glare of the sun. The rabbit-thing was still there, soaking up the sun, crisp April breeze ruffling its ruddy-brown fur.
“Holy smokes,” Tony gasped, wishing his buddy Javier had joined him for lunch so they could confirm what his eyes were seeing. “That’s a goddamn jackalope!”
Indeed, it was. Or at least, that’s what it appeared to be. When Tony moved to get a closer look, the animal bolted, disappearing in the underbrush along the rail spur that serviced the back lots.
A devotee of Red Dead Redemption since way back, Tony was familiar with jackalopes. He’d never seen one though. He’d never even been sure if they were real or not – he’d never paid much attention to science, or anything really, in school – until that day on the loading dock. But when he tried to tell his buddies at the bar after work about it, they all laughed at him.
“That’s a fairy tale, dummy,” Jimbo said, voice heavy with drink and derision. “You stupid or something? Ain’t no such thing.”
“But I seen it,” Tony implored, heart sinking. “Seriously.”
“Ya right,” Jimbo laughed. “And I fucked a mermaid out in Lake Manawaka last summer. Ha!”
Javier, who worked next to Tony on the factory floor, was more diplomatic.
“I do not believe you,” Javier told him, shaking his head slowly. “Such a creature would be an abomination unto God.”
Still Javier, who was Tony’s only semblance of a pal outside of his bar buddies, agreed to eat his lunch on the loading dock with him the next day. When their 30 minutes were up, though, and they’d seen neither hide nor hair of the jackalope, Javier shook his head again, eyebrows raised dubiously. After that, Tony went back to eating his lunch alone, eyes scanning the knoll across the way as it grew in greener by the day.
It wasn’t until the Friday before the May long weekend that the jackalope made another appearance. Even then, Tony almost missed it. He’d finished his corned beef, was in the process of crumpling up the wax paper wrap and hopping to his feet to dust the crumbs off his lap when out of the corner of his eye he caught a downy blur. Tony froze.
There it was, flaring its nostrils against the breeze on the far side of the spur line.
Slowly, Tony reached out for his phone. Slower still, he brought it up, pointed the lens towards the jackalope. Carefully, Tony spread his fingers across the screen to zoom in. Then, he pressed the red button rapidly once, twice, three times, four.
But Tony hadn’t muted his phone. The rapid clicking sound representing the digital shutter spooked his subject and it bolted back once again from whence it came.
“Shoot,” Tony fumed. But he took solace in the fact that his shutter had indeed clicked, that he’d captured the jackalope, digitally at least. He flipped through the photos he’d captured. A tad out of focus, he had to admit, but good enough, Tony figured.
“This is just a big rabbit, no?” Javier said after giving the pics a look. “Diseased, maybe?”
After that, Tony didn’t show the photos to any of his other buddies. He didn’t even bother stopping by the bar after work, heading straight home instead. Tony knew they’d just laugh at him. All those guys did was laugh at him like he was only some kind of hayseed dummy, just because he didn’t know about animals, or sports or taxes or girls or any of the other crap they went on and on about every night while they tipped their Budweisers back. Sure, Tony hadn’t done much with life, before or after moving to the city a few years after high school. He may not be wise to ways of the world, but dang it, Tony had found himself something rare, something he could call his own.
On his drive home, Tony hatched a plan. Those ding dongs wouldn’t be laughing if he caught the thing, would they? He’d probably make it on the local news and everything.
Saturday morning, Tony made a call and arranged to rent a cat trap from the Humane Society. He paid the rental fee and the deposit in cash then drove across town to the industrial park.
Tony stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of Five Star rye whisky on the way. He’d read online during one of many Reddit deep dives that the animals fancied firewater, of all things. And while most of what he’d read online on the subject of the jackalope had seemed incredible at best, Tony didn’t have much else to go on. So, Five Star rye whisky it was.
Tony parked in his usual spot behind the mattress factory. He tucked the bottle of rye into a sack and, with the sun just beginning to climb high into the mid-morning sky, grabbed the trap and started out.
Tony nestled the trap down into the brush between two scraggly willows down west of the rail line and pulled the whisky from his bag. Then he unscrewed the cap and poured an ounce into an empty sour cream container he’d brought from home.
Carefully, he placed the container deep within the trap, then shuffled back to his car.
But the trap remained empty all morning. As the shadows stretched out to the east, Tony remained, slouched behind the wheel, staring down the line. Apart from a dirty old crow that’d poked around for a while, Tony hadn’t seen another living thing all day.
The industrial park was bathed in twilight when he pulled up to approach the trap, just to check it out. He broke into a jog as he noticed its door was closed.
“Oh boy,” Tony whistled, flashlight banging around in his backpack along with the bottle of whisky as he raced along the tracks. “Oh boy, oh boy.”
Sure enough, the trap had been sprung, the door locked tight. In the mounting gloom, Tony couldn’t see inside beyond the metal grate. He crouched down, panting, gravel crunching under his boots. Tony cleared his throat, at a loss as to what to say or do.
“Hello?” he stammered. “You in there, little buddy?”
The trap lay still beneath the lanky willows. Heart pounding, Tony couldn’t tell if he’d heard something from the back of the plastic box, or if it were only the wind. He pulled the flashlight out of the sack, clicked the beam on.
He took a deep breath, leaned in and flashed the light at the back of the trap.
The trap had been sprung, the gate shut and locked, but the cage itself was vacant, save for the sour cream container he’d used for bait. But, unclasping the gate for a closer look, Tony noticed that the sour cream container had been drained.
“What the heck?”
Hair rising on his neck, Tony shut off the flashlight, turned to look up at the few stars he could see above the dull glow of the industrial park. Although he was most certainly alone, Tony had the distinct feeling of being watched when he knelt in the gravel to reset the trap. He sloshed a liberal amount of whisky into the plastic cup before taking a long pull himself and retreating to the front seat of his car.
Tony stared into the gloom, hoping to catch a glimpse of something in the darkness for over an hour, though he saw no discernible movement of any kind. Yet, when he ventured out to check the trap, once again he found it snapped shut, whisky gone.
“Hot dang,” he cursed, scrambling to his feet and bolting back towards his car as fear rippled through him. “Something’s up.”
He tossed his sack into the backseat, locked the doors and fumbled for his keys, certain that somebody was watching him. That somebody was playing a dirty trick on him. He cranked the engine and sped off towards his apartment.
Bright and early the next morning, far from rested, Tony was back at the industrial park.
He’d laid awake throughout the night, working the situation over and over again. The only people, he figured, who would go to any length to pull a prank on him were Jimbo and the boys from the bar. And there was no way that they had known he’d been down behind the mattress factory all day. The only other possibility, remote as it was, was Javier. But a prankster Javier was not. Besides, Javier had proudly told Tony that he was taking his family out camping for the long weekend, at least 100 miles from the scene.
Tony was certain it was none other than the jackalope itself that had taken his whisky and sprung his trap. The beast, it stood to reason, was playing him for a fool.
Frankly, Tony had had enough of being played for a fool. He told himself as much as he sped across town Sunday morning, pumping himself up for a long day, perhaps even a long night waiting for the jackalope to show its ruddy, mottled coat. Tony swore that he would not leave without catching the animal. He would show the boys at the bar, Javier, his parents back home that he had found something, something special. He would show them all, he swore. Then, he took a swig from his bottle to fortify himself to the task at hand.
Tony set the trap further down the line this time. He dispensed with the sour cream container, pouring the whisky instead in a shallow puddle on the floor of the trap itself, though his reasons for doing so were unclear. Perhaps, he thought, the beast would go wild trying to lick the booze up and stumble into captivity.
Then, he doubled back and took up a position behind a stack of pallets down wind of trap. Changing things up, he figured, could work in his favor. It couldn’t hurt, anyway.
Growing frustrated and bored as the hours passed with no sign of the jackalope, nor of any prankster, human or otherwise, Tony started nipping frequently from the bottle of rye.
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In the sixth hour, when Tony got up to take a leak, he caught a glimpse of something moving from the corner of his eye. His head snapped back in the direction of the trap and there it was.
“Oh baby,” Tony whispered, barely noticing the hot piss splashing his leg, focused as he was on the animal sniffing cautiously at the entrance to the trap. “Oh baby!”
The beast froze, stately little antlers poking up at the blue sky above, ears twitching in Tony’s direction, before shifting its gaze to scan both sides of the train tracks. Tony froze too, his heart hammering blood through his ears as his prey turned tail and retreated cautiously into bushes. Tony had trouble tracking its dunny coat through the scrub, but he thought he could see where it had come to rest up. Staring, he shifted himself into a crouch, and settled in to wait the beast out.
Hours later, sun sinking in the west, the jackalope finally re-emerged. Tony, legs and back aching from crouching, his stomach grumbling, tensed. His eyes widened, dry lips twisted into a grin as the jackalope crept out from the shadows and made its way cautiously towards the trap.
“Come on,” Tony whispered into the wind. “Come on now.”
Tony could see it all play out before him. Vindicated, his cunning and commitment to the truth would be celebrated far and wide. No more would his dullard buddies mock him, but rather they would hold him up as something of a hero perhaps, or, at the very least, someone worthy of respect and deference to all things trap or beast related. His parents would brag to anyone back in Lake Manawaka whose ear they could bend, their son a hero, a minor celebrity at least.
But the jackalope just stood there, its head near the entrance to the trap, tail facing Tony, tongue lapping up the amber liquid within.
“Internet didn’t lie,” he muttered, stunned. “Dang thing’s drinking the whisky.”
Tony watched as the jackalope drank up the puddle before it, waiting for the thirsty beast to reach into the trap just a step too far. But that moment never came. Instead, it stepped back out and raised its antlers and ears to the wind, before wandering off down the tracks from whence it had first come.
Tony walked calmly down the tracks after it. When he got to the trap, he unscrewed the cap to the whisky bottle and made a show of tossing it away into the bush. He poured another generous splash of rye into the trap before retreating slowly to his car, then doubling back to crouch behind the pallet blind, sipping whisky.
As the sun set, and boredom settled in with the chill of darkness, Tony found that the booze had crept up on him. Before long, Tony was drunk. He certainly hadn’t meant for it to happen. But there he was, crouched in the bushes by the spur line muttering to himself drunk.
A little after midnight, Tony caught a flash of something moving in the darkness. Drunk as he was, Tony snapped back into focus. Silent, still, he peered across the distance at the shadow moving towards the trap. Though he couldn’t see much, he felt certain that it was the jackalope and that, finally, the time had come.
“Here we go,” Tony whispered excitedly. “Here we go.”
Bottle in hand, Tony lurched abruptly out from behind the pallet blind in the direction of the trap. Stumbling, gravel crunching loudly beneath his sneakers, he made his mad dash towards the open trap.
Later, when he’d reflect back on that evening, Tony would often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t bolted, half blind with drink, down the spur line at that moment. Would the jackalope have tripped the trap on his own, if given enough time? Would he have found an opportunity to surprise the beast later on, from a better vantage point, with some measure of success? Or, at the very least, could he have saved himself some measure of pain and shame?
Sprinting sloppily, Tony kept his eyes on the jackalope, which stood with a tentative front paw in the air just outside of the trap’s door.
“Come on,” Tony wheezed, gaining uneven ground. “Don’t go.”
The jackalope crouched back, pressing its soft underbelly to the cold ground, flattening its ears along its back, tiny antlers raised defiantly. Tony came at it, full on, arms spread wide. A low growl rose from his belly, rising to a roar as he gained the top of the rail bed. The jackalope tensed, frozen in place as Tony’s roar turned to a startled scream when his foot caught the rail line and he was sent, sprawling through the air towards the beast.
The last thing Tony saw before he hit the rail bed were the jackalope’s eyes, which looked red in the gloom, staring deep into his own. Mocking him. Tony knew then that the thing had been playing him all along. Playing him for a goddamn fool. Then he hit the ground, headfirst into the solid steel rail line.
When he came to, hours later, soaked in dew in the early morning gloom, a security guard was shaking him awake with the toe of her boot. Tony blinked. The empty whisky bottle lay not far from the empty trap. Tony moaned as awareness and pain flooded back to him from the void.
“What the heck you doin’ here, bud?” the security guard asked as he pushed himself gingerly up off the ground to his knees. “You been drinkin’?”
“No,” Tony croaked. Everything hurt. He raised a hand, felt the scabby goose egg swelling from his skull. He reeked of stale whisky and piss, the inside of his mouth tasted like a sewer grate. “Well, a little, maybe. I… It’s a long story.”
Unimpressed, the security guard shook her head sternly.
“This here’s private property,” she told Tony, drawing herself up a little taller. “You should go home. Have a shower. Sleep it off.”
Dejected, hung over, Tony could only nod his head meekly as he gathered the cat trap and the empty bottle. The guard followed him to his car. As Tony opened the door, he passed to glance back up the rail line.
Over the shoulder of the security guard, not far from where he’d lain, the jackalope sat hunched in the bushes. Staring at him.
Eyes wide, Tony stopped short. His mouth fell open.
“Forget something, bud?” the security guard asked impatiently.
The jackalope held his gaze, daring him to action. But there was no way Tony could get past her – in his current state, or otherwise – and even then, he had little hope of catching up to the jackalope, did he?
Tony blinked again, rubbed his bloody face vigorously. When he opened his eyes, the jackalope was gone.
“No,” Tony said, his voice a dry, empty croak in the light morning breeze. In the back of his mind, he heard the boys at the bar just a howling. “Nothing at all.”
About The Author
Sheldon Birnie is a writer, husband, and father of two from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada whose work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in BULL, Cowboy Jamboree, Rejection Letters, Riot Act, among others.
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