Back in its heyday in the 80’s and 90’s, the mall was bustling with all kinds of activity, mostly teens hanging out, browsy shoppers with or without kids in tow, Red Hat ladies and similar coffee clutches, and working professionals meeting for casual hookups or lunch dates.  Packed shoulder to shoulder at the holiday rush, the mall itself let out a long audible sigh of relief once the Christmas returns finally fizzled out, the temporary stores closed, and the seasonal staff dispersed.

But now the mall was a dismal place.  It had fallen into a state of disrepair and featured more advertisements to rent or lease space than actual stores.  More than the bathrooms smelled like piss and the once well-maintained tile floors looked as if recently unearthed in a minor archeological excavation.  The food court was closed and the remaining benches and tables had been mostly removed “to discourage transients”.  The casual hookups were of a different, seedier sort, and the bathrooms were not places where many wished to linger long.  The few people who worked there seemed drawn to the solitude of it all and stood back and watched any intruders into their territory with hollow vacant stares.  Some shoppers still came, but they were fewer and further between.

Yet the mall still retained some vestiges of its former self.  There was still a minor holiday rush, especially where games and calendars were sold, though even that was dying out as more and more of it went virtual and was just a tap away on a “Smart” device of some sort or another.  There were kiosks vending mobile phones and body sprays and crystal talismans and those kinds of hair extensions that you wonder if they are made with real human or dog hair from unfortunates who disappeared to be harvested for parts.  And, at the appropriate times, there were still costumed characters for family photos with all of the accustomed holiday décor leading up to the focus of a central often-velvet throne upon which a bored and exhausted adult would beckon children to and from their lap, surrounded by assistants helping to hoist the young bottoms into position, threatening their subjects to smile in as eerily cheerful sing-song manner as possible, snapping a photo at the most opportune moment, and cleaning their costumed adult lap of vomit and excrement between visitors when necessary.

This time, the mall was decorated for Easter.

At first glance, it seemed those people who made money during the holidays dressing as Santa for rushed photo shoots in which kids ask for footballs instead of Red Rider pellet guns, and all of their entourage, still needed some means of making a buck.  Or maybe the parents just wanted an excuse to dress their kids up for the season and plop them onto the lap of a total stranger in a crude creepy bunny costume for a timely photo of them screaming at the tops of their lungs and begging to be taken home.  It was tradition after all, and they had turned out OK.  Besides, who doesn’t love a strong reminder that your parents could abandon you to the horrible nightmare terrors of long forgotten folklore that are now only spread through screaming childhood photos?  “You’d better eat your broccoli… or else…”  And yet, the rhythmic return of the costumed characters signified so much more.

When Clara first remembered encountering The Bunny she was two.  She had nightmares about the incident for weeks afterwards and promised to be good, begging her parents to never take her back there again.  It had worked for a while, but then the year came and went and she relaxed her guard, and the season turned once again to chocolate rabbits and jelly beans and starched scratchy Easter dresses.  And so they cycled right back to the mall to return to The Bunny, again and again.  There were even photos of her with The Bunny from before she could remember – a small and limp baby-doll child staring wide eyed in disbelief at the looming hare.

Now she was six, and here they were in the same line for The Bunny, who always smelled a little like shit, vomit and stale beer, and even more so like musty dried lavender, creepily staring at her through those hollow red eyes….  She begged and pleaded with her mother to just leave and said she was sorry for throwing a fit at the toy store the day prior when she didn’t get the Pop Starr Glam doll she wanted.  (She’d even held her breath but to no avail.)  She was dressed in her Easter finery for the year, another crisp looking ensemble with too much purple taffeta and white lace that simply wasn’t practical for romping or sitting or even so much as thinking in.  Her mother had spent more time than it could possibly be worth coiling her hair into spiral curls cascading over a pastel purple big bow headband before they’d left for here, and she had continued to twiddle with one stubborn flyaway lock of hair for most of the time they were in line.

Little did Clara realize that her parents were actually doing her a favor.

It was crucial that they come, and that Clara was dressed for the occasion.  The Pact was several generations long.  It pre-dated the mall when Santa and The Bunny had appeared in the larger big box window stores, like Woolworths back in the day.  And the costumed ensembles had gone someplace else before that, though no one remembers the name of it now.  It all began when Santa started coming annually, with the photo shoots and The List.  Shortly after Santa came The Bunny.  There had to be a balance.  Something needed to offset The List…

Clara’s eyes started to well up with tears as they moved forward in the queue.  Terrified children cried and screamed before her; some even broke loose of their parents’ grips to try to make a break for it only to be thwarted by The Bunny’s assistants, who were dressed as bulbous pastel Easter eggs with chicks popping out of them.  Clara’s mother studied her intently, straightening the folds of Clara’s dress and reaching in her purse for a tissue to wipe Clara’s face clean of the tears and vestiges of dirt, perhaps with just a touch of mom spit to get those stubborn smudges.  There was only one child left between them and The Bunny, a younger boy dressed in a pastel blue suit with a yellow bow tie.  He actually seemed to look forward to seeing The Bunny and eagerly climbed upon its lap like some kind of sellout automaton, grinning from ear to ear for the camera and clutching his chocolate rabbit like a treasure he had won.  He had earned it, that’s for sure: that prize and the aftermath of envisioning The Bunny as you bit off the ears and broke the chocolate into bite-sized bits to devour at your discretion was the only bearable thing about this whole experience.

Clara’s mother discussed photo packages with one of the egg chick attendants and settled on one that included enough wallet size pictures to send to all of the aunts, grandmothers and church ladies, just to be certain.  There was no real need for larger pictures, especially when digital copies were included as part of the package deal.  To ensure that The Pact was fulfilled for the year, photos had to be distributed and affixed to refrigerators far and wide so that all of the family could verify the warding.  Everyone would know that little Clara was once again proven safe from The List, an essential task for the parents of any child that struggled with minding their manners or following the rules, especially those pertaining to acting out in public.  The picture perfect spring garb was an added bonus meant to appease the Great Old Ones who had started this racket before any of them could remember.

The List was a brilliant system…

The Great Old Ones enticed the children with all of the jolly old Santa fantasies so they could catalog and categorize each and every one, and they convinced the children to be willing participants in this process with the lure of gifts and prizes to be won for being good.  The unsuspecting innocents flocked to Santa in droves to make sure they got on The List.  The parents had gone along with it, to bring joy and merriment, to acquire some great holiday photos to send in Christmas cards, and to encourage their children to be on their best behavior.  The threat of The List could sidestep an emotional blowout or even a full-scale falling-down-in-the-street tantrum, especially at the proper time of year.  But as the parents began to understand the more sinister ramifications of the contract, they had been forced to reengage with The Great Old Ones to create a way out, and so The Pact was born and The Bunny began to come.

Clara tried to be brave.  Her lip quavered as she approached The Bunny, determined not to cry this time.  She was a year older, stronger and wiser.  She could get through this.  She solemnly climbed up on the rabbit’s lap and faked a smile for the camera, eyes wide.  She silently ignored the faint odor of old shit and vomit and the strangely ever-present lavender.  But then, the overwhelm came.

It was never as apparent from afar, but from the vantage point of the rabbit’s lap it became more and more obvious that The Bunny was not in fact an adult in a cheap ill-kept crude rabbit suit but was rather simply the suit itself, wrapped around a hollow void in space and time that seemed to scan the very essence of one’s being.  It was filled with darkness, dread and despair, and it studied its subjects intently, absorbing their every breath.  Beyond the permanently superficial grin, huge red bulbous eyes, and the wired catawampus ears that framed the oversized stuffed head lurked something unholy and otherworldly that could not be understood or explained in any rational way.

Its presence was the sort of thing that children and dogs can sense unnervingly and that cats will commune with as they stare blindly at a closet door for hours on end.

Clara tried to be brave and held her pose for the camera, knowing that if she caved in to the fear, she would feed the void that was The Bunny within the rabbit suit, and then this whole thing would take even longer as the assistants glared, coaxed, waved, whistled and tried to force a smile out of her.  With the flash of the camera it was over and Clara was hoisted again to the floor to sweet freedom, a chocolate rabbit talisman of The Bunny, and a long, quiet car ride home.  She was getting better at this with every passing year for all that the realization of it still sent shivers through her skin and rekindled her springtime nightmares.

Her mother smiled and fingered the photos.  Another year had come and gone and her daughter was secure.  Only a couple more years of this and Clara would outgrow The Pact, and this annual nightmare would give way to others.

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.