User:Ermine/Our Extremely Inconvenient Hike
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Our Extremely Inconvenient Hike
Chapter 1 - Taking a Hike
Let me tell you something. The worst thing that you can do to a couch potato is to inform him that his girlfriend is an avid nature fan. And that she's going on a hike through some state forest, on the same day that an important baseball game is on TV. And she is bringing a bunch of other guys along with her.
I admit, we were all close friends, and none of us were out to snatch away Ted's girlfriend, but boy, he took the news very seriously.
I half-expected him to be grouchy and sullen that day, but he seemed rather cheerful when we stopped to pick him up. He was dressed in some hiking shorts and a T-shirt and a long-rimmed cap, with hiking boots and cotton socks -- he never wore socks before in his life! -- and a water bottle clipped to a stuffed sling bag around his shoulder. He smiled and waved at us, though I could tell he was just trying to impress Heather.
"Wow, Ted," Ben called out from the back seat. "You really look decked out!"
He shrugged his shoulders casually with a smug look. "I like to be prepared!" he said as he took the front seat we had courteously left vacant for him.
I caught a glimpse of his water bottle as he sat down. The UPC label was crisp, clean, and white. He must have bought the water bottle just recently. Obviously, he had never gone on a hike in his life.
"What have you got in that pack of yours?" Heather asked as she steered us out of town.
"Oh, you know, mosquito repellent, first aid kits, energy bars, a pocketknife, a compass..." He seemed rather pleased with himself.
"How long was this trip going to last, again?" Ben hollered out.
"Just a few hours," Heather said, "a little nature hike. I thought -"
"'Cuz from the way you were going on, I thought we were, like, camping out or something!"
"Well," Heather said, "I just thought we should do something together, as a group. Besides going to movies."
"What's wrong with movies?" Ben asked.
"Well, nothing, but wouldn't you rather see some of nature's beauty, some of its splendor?"
"Hey, have you seen that new movie, Jeff? The one that came out last week, with the spy fighting the robots?"
"No, I don't go to the movies that often," I said.
"Oh, you should see it. There's this one scene, see, where Marcus, he's the hero, he goes into his house, and he's looking around, looking for his family and such, but it's all dark and such, and then the walls, they suddenly start exploding..."
I had pretty much tuned him out by that point. I was staring outside the window, watching the trees and the telephone poles go by. It's really quite hypnotizing, watching those telephone wires dip and slowly rise upwards, and fall again when they come across a pole, over and over for miles and miles. I barely noticed the time pass by as we parked into the campgrounds.
On the trail, though, noticing the time pass was much more pronounced.
"I'm tired!" Ben said from behind. "When can we take a break?"
"We're not taking a break until we get to the cliffs!" Heather called back.
"Can't we get to the cliffs after we take a break?"
"Ben, we took a break just a few minutes ago. Don't you want to savor the exercise?"
"But my feet are killing me!"
I noticed that Ted was keeping a straight face as he walked. He didn't seem to enjoy it either, but he didn't look like he wanted to say so in front of Heather.
"Say, Heather," I broke in, trying to change the subject, "what kind of bird is that?"
"It's a sparrow," she said, barely glancing in my direction.
"Oh," I said, a little embarrassed. "Well, how about that bird?"
"That's an oriole. Don't ask me what kind, I don't know." Her initial enthusiasm for this trip had quickly worn off, I could tell.
We finally came to the cliffs. We stood underneath them, looking dumbly up at them.
"Don't tell me we forgot a camera," Ben groaned.
So we left the cliffs without a picture to prove that we had seen them, and continued on our way down the trail.
"I thought we were gonna take a break," Ben asked.
"Look, we'll stop when we get to some shade, all right?" she said, gritting her teeth as she spoke.
"But I -"
"Hey, just chill, Ben!" Ted called out. "Leave her alone, why don't ya?"
We were all beginning to get on each other's nerves. Whether it was from our sore feet or from the hot sun, I couldn't tell. I was getting fatigued too; I was the only person who had forgotten to bring a hat.
The trail abruptly ended at a shady bike trail. We all decided to take a break, without any of us saying a word. Perhaps it was destiny, perhaps it was luck, but there had to have been a reason that, of all the places to take a break, we decided to stop there.
"Great. I'm out of water," Ben moaned.
"Did you fill it up?" Ted asked.
"I thought it was full. I mean, it was full when I left the house..."
"You can have some of my water," Heather offered.
"No, he can drink some of my water. Oh, heck, just take it." Ted tossed it across the ground and flopped down to look down across the ravine below us.
I could tell that the trip was wearing him out. Ben and Heather seemed to know it, too. I made the first move, though.
"So, Ted, you feeling all right about the hike?"
"I'm fine," he grumbled, as he picked up a rock from the ground. He tossed it into the ravine, where it clanked against the trees and fell to the leafy ground.
"You're not ready to leave, are you?"
"I'm fine!" he shot back.
"I'm not," quietly said Ben from behind us.
"You're not what?" I called back as Ted and I turned around. But as looked behind us, Ben was not there. In his place was a small, brown rodent that was looking at us, rooted to the ground and shaking terribly.
"What just happened?" the rodent said.
It was very, very, unbelievably bizarre, hearing Ben's voice come out of the tiny little critter. Neither Ted nor I spoke or even moved; we just sat there gaping and gawking, the weird scene in front of us trying to grope its way to our brains. Heather was the first to recover.
"I believe," she said slowly, "that you're a field mouse."
"What do you mean, I'm a mouse? What just happened? What happened?" He was stuttering and shivering all over.
"I think they're called voles, but I'm not sure."
"What happened? Oh my God, what just happened?!"
"Dang, Ben, you're a mouse," Ted finally managed to say.
Yeah, we were all pretty stupid at that moment; none of us understood what had happened. The awkward silence was quickly remedied, though, when I suddenly turned into a raccoon.
"Holy s***!" Ted yelped, leaping up behind Heather.
I just stood there, a little shocked by what had happened. It was very jarring to suddenly feel my ears sitting at the top of my head, and to feel this piece of flesh sticking out of my butt, and to feel the air on these whiskers hanging out like a thin mustache.
"Maybe we should get out of here," Heather said slowly.
"Damn right we should! I'm getting out of here!" Ted started into a run, but he stopped into a jog when he realized how out of shape he was. And perhaps, a little foolish running off by himself. He turned around, and Heather had become a rabbit.
"Oh man... oh man..." Ted was going ballistic, standing there, waving his hands at nothing, trying to figure out what to do.
The three of us, Heather, Ben and I, looked at each other tremulously.
"Do you know what's going on?" Ben asked.
"Do you think I know what's going on?" Heather said sarcastically.
"So I guess not."
Ted suddenly threw off his sling bag and his water bottle and his cap, and looked at his clothes for a little bit. Just as he reached down to pull his shoes off, he became a squirrel.
So we basically stared at each other, trying to find something to say; what can you say, when you and all your friends have just became little furry critters? It seemed like a long pause, though it was probably just a few seconds, until Ted's water bottle started rolling down the sloping path. Ted spun around and raced after it, and then Heather ran after Ted, and then Ben and I ran after all of them.
"Get it! Get it!" Ted yelled to no one in particular. "I got it!" he said as he leaped upon it. At least Ted was in better shape as a squirrel, anyway.
"Hey, Ted! Are we picking up your stuff?" I shouted down to him.
"Yeah, you're getting it, we're going!"
"Wait, going?" Heather asked.
"Are you thinking of staying?"
"Ted, maybe we should stay here and figure out what happened."
"I'm not sticking around any longer! I'm getting out of here!"
Ben was too small to pick up Ted's sling bag and hat, so I slipped the sling bag around my head and then slipped the cap over it. Ben and I hurried down to Heather and Ted, as I dragged the sling bag behind me.
"Wait, Ted! Let's stop and think things through for a bit. Watch out!"
The sling bag wasn't closed properly, as it happened. Ted's flashlight and mosquito repellent began rolling out and down the path. Heather flopped onto the flashlight, and Ted ran to the side to catch the repellent.
"I think we'd better stop for a bit," Ben said, running down towards Ted.
"I want to get out of here. And that's that."
"Then we'll just stay here with Heather," I shouted out.
Ted hesitated, and decidedly turned around. "Fine, we'll talk. Could we do it somewhere away from here, at least?"
Heather nodded. I'd never seen a rabbit nod before, actually. "Okay, then," she said. "Go back and help Jeff with your stuff."
So the four of us set off down the bike trail. We would have made an awkward sight, walking together, especially me. Wearing that cap and carrying that huge sack, I looked like I'd looted some campsite. We met up with only two people on the trail, both bikers, heading towards us. They took one look at us and then quickly looked back to the trail.
"They didn't seem too interested in us," Ben observed.
"Bikers know better than to take their eyes off the trail," Heather pointed out. I had my own opinions, but I kept them to myself.
When we found a footpath leading off the bike path, we went down it for a few yards before settling down underneath some bushes.
"So, what do we talk about?" Heather asked.
"How about what's going on?!" Ben screamed.
"Do I look like I know what's going on?" Heather asked.
"Ben," I said, "I think it's fair to say that none of us has a clue what's going on."
"Well, why the hell did we just turn into... little, scurry things?"
"It could have been the air," Ted suggested.
"It was not the air! Other people would have become weird little things if it was the air!" Ben said, a bit quickly.
"Maybe it did happen to other people, and we just never knew about it," Ted offered.
"They would not have-- I don't think-- that doesn't happen!" Ben fired off.
"I think Ted has a point though," I said. "If it's happened to us, it's probably happened before."
"What's happened?! I want to know what freakin' happened!"
"Well, it looks like we've been turned into some small forest mammals, except that we can still speak with our normal voices."
"It's like some kind of weird movie. The kind I never watch," Ted added.
"So, we're not really animals, I guess you could say we're half-animals..."
"Now I really wish I did see those movies. Ben, do you know what I'm talking about, those movies?"
"Me? I only watch the new movies, and the cool movies, so I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"This can't be a dream, can it?" Heather asked.
"If this was a dream, I wouldn't be sticking around this long," Ben said.
"And neither would I," Ted added. "Maybe it's a hallucination."
"Definite no," said Ben. "I'd say right now, there's no reasonable way this would be happening."
"But there has to be; otherwise, how would we turn back?" Ted asked.
"Perhaps," Heather paused, "there is no way back."
"What... what do you mean, no way back?" Ben said. "This can't be permanent, can it? I can't stay this way forever! There's got to be a way back!"
"There isn't," said a voice around us.
We all looked around when we heard that, but we didn't see anyone. We couldn't even tell where it had come from.
"Hey, who's there? Were you talking to us?" Ben asked.
"I am," it said again.
"Where are you?" Heather asked.
"I am all around, beneath the land you walk upon, among the trees, the earth, and the air."
"Er, sorry, were we bothering you? Because, we can move if you want..." Ted said.
"Not just here. I am everywhere across this land, from shore to shore, amongst everything that lives and breathes."
"Were you the one who changed us?" I asked.
"Um, well, awesome trick, but could you turn us back now? I think I'm getting fleas," Ben said.
"I have changed you deliberately, so that you may give my message to your people."
"Uh... message? People?" Ted asked, skeptically.
"For thousands of years, I have watched my people grow upon this earth, thriving amongst it, tending it with care and respect. For thousands of years have I carefully tended to them, watching over them, with kindness and wisdom. So happy were those days, to see my people live with such attentiveness and conscientiousness."
"Hey, just so we're on the same page, are you a guy or a girl?" Ted asked.
"Don't interrupt! Yes, things used to be so peaceful, until you foreigners landed over here, and slowly began to infest the land with your native poisons and pests, with your unearthly machines and weapons, with your tyrannous roads and fences, and began to destroy my people, either driving them towards the shores, or laying your poisonous swords and firearms amongst them, slaying them and slaughtering them, and desecrating the land around them."
"Just to be fair," I said, "none of my relatives ever did that stuff. I'm German and Irish."
"It matters not! You should have stopped them. And so should have I. But no, your people continued to dominate, so quickly that you overwhelmed me. It was such an unnatural progress that it buried me beneath the earth. But slowly, for years since then, I have spent that time replenishing myself, sustaining myself off of whatever precious land remained, to return this earth to my people."
"Okay, so you turned us into animals as punishment?" Heather asked.
"No, no, not for punishment. As a warning. You are to return to your people and deliver my message."
"Y-" Ted was about to say, but Ben interrupted, "What message?"
"You must tell them that this land belongs to my people, and that they must leave at once, and return it to me and my people."
"Wait," Ted said, "you want everyone to leave? The whole country, just get up and leave?"
"And if they do not, I shall take the land from them by force."
"But..." Heather said. "We can't just tell everyone to leave the country. They won't..."
"If they choose not to leave, they can stay and await my judgment. A very quick judgment, I'm sure."
"That's..." Ted stuttered.
"This is a joke, right?" Ben asked. "You are going to change us back now, right?"
"I'm afraid I can't do anything for you. If you do stay here, then you will face the same judgment I shall inflict on every other foreigner."
"Then... you mean..." Ben stammered.
"I'll be waiting."
Chapter 2 - Leaving the Park
Heather and I turned around to look at Ted again.
"Oh, sorry, heh, heh. Just my tail, again," he chuckled.
It was taking a bit of time for us to digest the strange spirit's message. But now that we were no longer focused on our strange situation, we could now start thinking about ourselves. Which was what Ben was doing too much of.
"This is not happening to me... This is not happening to me... This cannot be happening to me..."
We'd given up trying to cheer him up; there was no getting him out of that spaced-out look of his. But we decided immediately that we should try getting out of the woods first, and get into a more familiar environment. Well, either that, or Heather had just decided to give up the hike. Nah, it was probably the first one.
"Yikes! ... Oh, sorry, just me again."
Actually, I thought to myself, Heather's been handling it rather well. She's certainly a lot cooler-headed than she was on the trail. Must be the big ears. Oh, I shouldn't make jokes like that; she'd kill me if I said that. Not right away, of course, but she'd probably torture me with some comeback. With my luck, I probably wouldn't be able to --
"What do you think of it, Jeff?"
Think of what? Oh, drat, was there a conversation going on? "Think of what?"
"I mean, do you feel your brain acting any differently?"
I thought about it for a bit. "It's possible, but I don't think I've had enough time to notice, just yet."
"Well, you must feel something different," she pressed.
"Yeah. My hands feel stiffer. I guess my legs feel stiffer, too. And my armpits feel a bit hairier."
"Oh, come on, that's nothing," Ted said. "I mean, to me, it feels like my brain's on epilepsy mode; it's just jumping at everything!"
"Well that's nothing," Heather said, "compared to having a hairy chest."
"So, what do we do when we get back to your van?" I asked Heather.
"The keys were in my pocket..."
"So we can forget about driving it."
"Strange how it managed to get rid of our clothes, somehow..."
"Yeah, except for me! I was the smart one! I got all my gear off before he could do anything! A good thing I brought all that stuff, then, so that we could survive out here if we had to!"
"I don't think we'll have to worry about surviving, since we are animals..."
"Stop," Ben suddenly said. So we stopped. "I don't want to hear anymore about being animals, or becoming animals, or anything. Let's talk about something else, please."
"Okay, sure. No problem, Ben," I said. So as we started up again, I asked Ben, "So, Ben, are you still thirsty?"
"Well, even if we were thirsty," Ted interrupted, "where would we get a drink? We don't have any water bottles..."
"I think there's a stream over the hill that we could drink out of," I said.
"It's not that safe to drink water from a stream, without purifying it first," Heather said.
"Oh, right. Roundworms?" I said.
"No, pollutants would be more likely," she said.
"How big are roundworms, anyway?" Ted asked.
"Very small, microscope-sized," she said.
"They're not dangerous, are they?" Ted asked.
"Well, they are parasitic, and you can get sick from them, but I think you'd only get killed if you didn't get medical attention in time."
"Don't they, like, stay inside you, though, and eat up your intestines?"
"Let's," Ben suddenly interrupted, "talk about something else."
So then we walked in silence. Sort of.
"Eee!" Ted cringed again.
As we turned around a bend, we suddenly saw a woman ahead of us, pushing a baby in a stroller and walking a dog behind her. Before we could hide, however, she instantly fixed her gaze on us.
"Great," I whispered to Heather, since she was closest to me. "Now what do we do?"
She had trouble answering that question, and it quickly didn't matter, because her dog had already started running right towards us.
"Oh, s***! Scatter!" Ted yelled as he leapt to the side.
"Aw, f***!" Ben yelled as he ducked into the bushes.
"Chelsea! Sit! Sit! Stop!" the woman yelled as she ran forward.
I bolted to the left, tearing off the sling bag. Heather ran to the right behind a mound of rocks. The dog decided I was the easier target, and ran up, barking after me.
"Chelsea! No! Sit! Stay!" the woman yelled from behind.
I kicked back dead leaves and sticks behind me, hoping to throw the dog off, but Chelsea was coming closer, her teeth and her breath getting closer.
"No! Shoo! Get away!" I shouted.
Now, if I was a real raccoon, and I had been paying more attention to getting away from the dog than to trying to get the dog away from me, I probably would have seen the holes in the ground that probably led to some underground burrow. But I ran past it, thinking, That's too dirty, and who knows what's down there right now? I probably could have climbed a tree, too, if I had reflected beforehand that, as a raccoon, my climbing skills had probably improved significantly since the rock-climbing incident last spring. Even running away blindly would have been better than what I did next.
I curled up into a ball and cowered in fear. The dog chomped me in the leg, and dragged me a few feet before dropping me again.
"No! Stop that! Chelsea, no! Let him go!" I heard the woman cry, as she batted the dog on the side.
The whimpering dog and the woman went down the path, while I lay there, dazed by the experience. A wash of pain, fear, panic, and epinephrine poured over me. I kept my eyes closed, to try and blot out the pain.
"Chelsea, behave! No, no! Come over here now!" I wondered who else was getting the Chelsea treatment.
"Hey, Jeff, you okay?" Ted said. He sounded like he was a few feet from me, and getting closer. "Oh, dang, that doesn't look good. Hold on," he said, his voice turning more distant now.
I strained to hear them over the pulsing in my head. I heard the woman say, "I... I'm sorry. Chelsea's not usually like this. I thought she grew out of it, but..."
Then Heather, "Uh, I know this looks a little odd, but, we need you to listen."
Ted, "Hey, Jeff's not doing too well, I think we should get him to a vet or something."
The woman, "What... Is Jeff that..."
Ted, "Ah, good, he dropped my cap. Good, didn't want my Sox cap to get ruined."
A bird sang overhead.
Heather: "Okay, look, we had a sort-of run-in with someone a while back, and we kind of need some help right now, so, I know it may be a terrible inconvenience, but..."
Woman: "I, I'm sorry, I need a moment."
Ted: "Where's Ben?"
Heather: "Oh, no. Ben! Ben! It's all clear! Come out, wherever you are!"
At this point, I was starting to get a bit light-headed. It might have been the wound, which was really starting to sting right now, or it could have been the soft leaves below me, and maybe that energy burst from running, but I was getting tired now. Still, I kept up my listening to the conversation.
Woman: "So, I take it Jeff was the raccoon."
Ted: "Yeah, and he's got a nasty bite on his leg."
Woman: "I'm sorry, this is, I really don't do well with animals."
Ted: "Neither do we, actually."
Everyone got a lot quieter, then, and I couldn't hear them. And it was becoming a real struggle to stay awake. I was getting dizzy at that point; I was starting to feel very peaceful, right then. It was getting much harder to hear the conversation, too.
Woman: "Hold on... have a number here..."
Heather: "There you are... okay?"
Ted: "...least you're looking better..."
Ben: "Shut up, Ted."
Woman: "Hello? ... forest ranger? Yes, there's a..."
Heather: "How is Jeff? Is he..."
And I was out.
Warmth. I could feel warmth.
Where was it? It seemed to come from all around me. It was soft, too.
Oh, God. A blankie.
"Hey, easy there! Calm down, little fella!"
Oh, God, what were they doing to me? I could feel hands around me; what, were they dressing me up as a baby? I've hated those sorts of dreams. But how could I wake up?
My eyes finally started opening. My mind did a double-take when it saw the huge muzzle right before my eyes, before I remembered, oh yeah, I'm a raccoon.
"Hold on for a minute. You're almost done," a woman's voice said from afar.
What was that smell? I wasn't familiar with it. It smelled faintly of wood; something like a forest. Oh, yeah, the state forest. Then this must be the lodge. Yes, I remember seeing the lodge. How did I remember the smell, though? Dang, did I sniff the building before going off on the hike? What kind of a weirdo am I?
"All right, there you go, little guy."
"His name is Jeff." That was Heather. As soon as I heard her, I wakened right up. Yes, it was definitely a building; the walls were made of smooth wood, and the floor was tiled, and the ceiling looked distinctively like a log cabin wall. There was a cabinet along the wall, a bench with some cushions right next to it, and three animals were sitting on the bench.
"Don't worry, you'll be fine. Just take it easy walking, and in a few days you'll be back to normal."
"Normal?" Ben asked.
"Oh, well, um... uh... anyway, uh..." the woman stammered. "Excuse me," she said as she left through an open door.
I sat up, tossing off the pink blanket. I hoped no one had taken a picture of me with that blanket; I mean, a green blanket would have been fine, but a PINK blanket? Aren't there any animal cruelty laws forbidding that sort of thing?
"So, how are you feeling, Jeff?" Heather asked.
I did another look-around. I was on a table with a soft sheet of paper covering it, like in a doctor's office. There was a file cabinet on one end of the table, where I was at, and a chair at the other end. Very simple surroundings, I noted.
"Oh, I'm feeling just splendid," I lied. "Where are we?"
"Back at the main lodge. We're in the first aid station."
"What happened to that woman and the dog?"
"I think the woman left, after dropping us off. She had this weird look on her face. I think this... situation really shocked her."
"Yeah, that seems to be happening a lot, wherever we go," Ted noted.
Right as he said that, in through the door came a frowning man in uniform. Brown pants with a wireless radio hanging from his belt, a navy blue shirt with a nametag reading "DON BRIDGE", and brown hair sketched with gray hairs. He looked at us bitterly, apparently trying to hide his disgust.
"So, how are you all doing? Is everything going okay?" he said tersely.
"Oh, yeah, everything's great," Ted said.
Don nodded stiffly and turned to leave.
"Excuse me, how long until they arrive?" Heather asked.
Don stopped and hesitated a moment. "Probably around fifteen minutes. Just hang out or... something, until then." And he quickly stepped out.
"Who's coming?" I asked.
"The police," she said.
"The what? Police?"
"Yeah, while you were out, the park staff did some calling around, and eventually the police said they were coming to take care of the situation."
"You missed a lot of action," Ted said. "First there was everyone trying to figure out what to do about us, and then these bikers came in because they were worried someone's stuff had been taken, and... well, that was pretty much it, but it was really funny to watch them, all gaping and staring at us, like we were freaks or something."
"I probably would have done the same thing, too, you know. If I saw a bunch of talking animals in my office, I'd probably freak out. Actually, I might even leave the room."
"Why?" I asked.
"Well... I guess it'd be... superstition, I guess. Or I just couldn't handle the situation."
"Heck, I could handle it," Ted said. "I can't see why anyone would be bothered with it. Well, I mean, a talking squirrel is probably bizarre, but hey, in Spain people let themselves get chased by bulls on purpose! Now, this is a lot less weirder than that, I guarantee you!"
"We're not freaks," Ben said.
"What? Oh, I... I didn't mean... I wasn't suggesting that..."
"I bet you like this, don't you?" Ben said, his anger rising.
"I... well..." Ted stammered.
"You just love this 'cause everybody's noticing you, right? You think this is just some chance to be noticed?" he yelled.
"No, no, no, no," Ted quickly replied, "I'm just trying to make the most of... I mean, I just..."
"Why don't you ever think about anyone else besides yourself?! Why don't you ever think about something besides impressing your girlfriend?!"
"Hey, Ben, look, I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry. Let's just calm down."
"No, I can't calm down! Don't you see we're stuck like this?! He's never gonna change us back! We're gonna be stuck like this forever!"
"Hey!" Don came in from the other room, looking sharply at us. But this time, he suddenly softened up. "Is something the matter?"
"Um, no, just a little problem coping with... life," Heather replied.
"Heh. Tell me about it," Don walked in and seated himself at the other side of the table.
"What, is it hard being a ranger?" Ted asked.
"Ugh, don't call me a ranger. I'm just a conservationist," Don said. "Sorry about... seeming cold, earlier. I just didn't know what to think of you."
"Yeah, yeah," Ted shrugged off.
"I mean... well, this is a strange situation. I suppose it's been a while since I've had anything unusual to deal with."
We were silent for a moment. "It's harder for us, of course," I said.
"So, tell me," Don said, "is there any... reason that you're... talking like this?"
"Reason, heh," Ted replied, "it's very unreasonable, frankly."
"From what we've gathered," Heather continued, "there's this nature spirit who's angry at what we've done to the earth, and now he's getting back at us. Or going to, or something."
"Yeah," I followed up. "We're supposed to give a message to you, and everyone else living around here." I stopped for a moment, trying to reconstruct exactly what the voice had told us.
"What message?" Don asked blankly.
Heather answered, "That he's going to take back the land, and everyone with it, unless they get off it."
Silence. As I expected. Don turned to look at each of us, his face turning with doubt. And finally, he sat back and frowned.
"Hmm... that is... a strange message. Terrible, if it were true," he ruminated. "But... if that's the only explanation we've got, then... Well, dang... Excuse me for a moment," he got up and left through the door. He seemed to be shaking, but perhaps I was just imagining it.
"Well, no one believes us. I could have guessed that," Ted said.
"He's not everyone, you know," Heather argued.
"But I'm sure we'll get a lot more reactions like that."
"Besides, he seems to have believed us, for the most part."
"If we're gonna go out in public, telling everyone that the world is doomed, no one's ever gonna believe us, even if we are a bunch of talking animals."
"It's worth a try, isn't it?" Ben said. "If it's anything to get us back to normal..."
"Ben, you know the spirit said..."
"Ahem!" I coughed up. Ted glanced at me, and said nothing.
We heard the lodge doors open, and two people coming in the lodge. Don peeked in through the door, with his blank face back in place.
"The police are here for you," he said, and after a pause, added, "Good luck."
Chapter 3 - Stationed
Police cars are not known for inciting sparkling conversations. Maybe it's because everything inside is a dreary shade of black. The seats, the seat belts, the ceiling, the wire separation grid. And there was an awful smell of leather intoxicating the air.
There were two police officers in the car. One of them was driving, the other was sitting with us. He was a tall, bulky guy, the kind of policeman who always scared the heck out of me when I was a kid. The fact that I was now less than a foot tall did not help matters. He kept shifting looks at us every now and then, with this evil look in his eyes. Well, maybe I was imagining it or something, but he sure looked like the sort of guy who keeps a shotgun by his porch every time some little rodent comes running along outside his front door.
I sat between Ben, who didn't seem to care or notice the policeman, and Ted, who I was convinced really did have fleas. He and Heather spent most of the time whispering to each other; about what, I don't know, but I suspect it was related to the way they kept glancing at the policeman.
The driver didn't make any small talk with any of us; he was either driving, or taking a drink from a plastic mug. He did glance occasionally at the officer next to us, but that was as far as he got.
Ben started snoring. As soon as he did, the policeman sitting next to him stiffened for an instant. Heather and Ted giggled. The driver said aloud, "Don't worry, we're almost there."
I wondered where exactly we were headed; some sort of government agency, filled with top secret plans and superspies? A medical facility, with lots of needles and liquids and large machines making beeping noises? Or were we being led to some sort of kennel, where they would inject us with some sort of memory-loss fluid so we could become animals for real?
No, it was just the sheriff's headquarters. Dang, what a bust. Well, there could still be superspies in the sheriff's place.
The driver parked in some parking lot with a no-kidding actual stone and chain-link fence around it. Were there real criminals who had tried to escape over those fences? This place was already giving me the creeps.
"All right, fellas," the driver said, "we weren't sure what to do, exactly, but you'll have to trust us on this."
The door on our side opened, and in came two large dog carriers.
"No," Ted said.
"Way," Ben finished.
"Come on, we'll make this quick," said a man's voice from behind the cages.
"This is just cruel... and unusual," Ted said.
"It won't last long," the driver reassured us.
"Come on, let's make them happy," Heather said as she hobbled -- or hopped -- inside.
"Oh, whatever," Ted followed her, while I entered the other cage.
"Seriously..." Ben said as he watched us, clamped down to the seat.
"Pete's sake," the officer who sat next to Ben muttered as he grabbed Ben and tossed him in with me. Ben whimpered -- squeaked? -- as he bounced off the wall.
"Don't worry, this is just a safety precaution. We'll let you out as soon as we get inside," the voice said.
The cage swung from side to side, and I grappled against the sides. Ben clutched my tail.
"Hey, get off!" I yelled, kicking him against the side and knocking the wind out of him. He squeaked again, louder and more hurt than before.
"You two okay down there?" shouted our handler.
"Yeah, we're good," I called out. I wasn't too sure, though; Ben looked like he was really hurting. I probably shouldn't have thrown him so hard, but he was touching my BUTT. I mean, you don't just go touching other people's butts. Even if he is a field mouse... Hey, he's a field mouse, and I bopped him on the head. Except I'm not a bunny. But if Heather did that, then...
Bah, totally irrelevant thought. Focus on the situation. We were inside the station, still very gently rocking back and forth. I sidled up to the grid door and stuck my paw out the door. This was sort of like a ski lift, really, except without any seat belts and restraints. I watched as we headed down the hallways and passed by several curious officers and workers. I grinned and waved at them as we passed. Dang, I thought, I could never get tired of doing this.
"Hey, Ben, get over here," I whispered.
"No," Ben said.
"Oh, come on, Ben, I'm sorry I kicked you. Come over here and take a look out."
"No," Ben said. Well, no point arguing with him.
Suddenly we turned towards a door. It was open in a flash, and we swiveled in front of a huge desk.
"Here, Kim. Watch them while we get the boss," our handler said as he put us on the desk. "Make sure they stay in your office."
"Will do," the woman at the desk said. Our handlers left us, leaving Kim looking nonchalantly at us.
"Alright, then," she said, pulling out a notepad and a pen. "Names?"
Heather said, "Heather Pauling," at the same time as I said, "Huh?"
"First and last names," Kim said.
"Theodore Kurst," Ted said.
"Uh... Jeffrey O'Malley. Ben?"
Ben looked up from the corner. "Benjamin Tanner."
"Okay, then. Phone numbers?"
"54-" started Heather. "What are these for?" I interrupted.
"Background information. So we can contact your folks."
"You're gonna tell them we've... turned into animals?" I said.
"What we tell them is under debate. Numbers, please."
Heather finished her number, and Ted started off on his phone number. As he finished, someone knocked on the door and came in. Kim still hadn't let us out of the carrier yet, so I peeked through the holes in the back to get a look.
"Hey, Kim, is this... are you busy right now?" said the man. He was dressed in business casual, wore a scruffy hairstyle, and carried a bouquet of flowers in one hand.
"Yes, Doug, I'm very busy right now. Could you come back later?"
"I just wanted to drop these off... you know, to apologize for last night..."
"Fine. Thank you. I'll talk to you later. Now shoo."
"May I ask," he looked at us, "what the carriers..."
"No, you can't. Get out, I can handle this on my own."
"Are these the kids, then?"
Kimberly stood up. "Out. Out. We'll talk this evening, now out," she said, leading him back to the door. As they stepped out, I heard sudden scuffling behind the door. "Hey!" "Whoa!" "Sorry!" "What's this?" "Sorry, I was just leaving..." "Sorry, sir. He was just stopping by..."
Kim came back in with a middle-aged man with thick glasses and grayish-brown hair. "So, are these the talking critters?" he said.
"Yes, sir," Kim said.
The man sat down in front of us, staring between the two carriers. "So, how are you?"
"Better," I said.
"Not so hot," Ted said.
"Okay," Heather said.
Ben didn't say anything, but the man took no notice. "How about I let you out of these things?"
"That'd be great," Heather said.
The man reached over and pulled the latch for Ben and me, and opened the door. He moved onto Heather and Ted as I stepped out.
"Aren't there four of you?" he said.
"Ben's a little shy right now," I sort-of lied. Now was not the best time to beg Ben to pull himself together or to apologize profusely for hurting him.
"Very well, then," the man said as he stepped back. As he did, I took a clearer look around me. It was an ordinary-looking private office, and very room. Much of the walls and floors were barren, with only a few certificates and a scant bulletin board on the wall. Everything was very, very plain. There was also a strange smell in the air that was hard for me to pick out.
"First of all, the sheriff is unable to meet you right now. Mr. Rolsen is away at a meeting with other people, but he should be around sometime this evening. I'm Deputy Ed Gilbert, meeting you on his behalf." He paused for a moment. "I understand that right now you four must be very confused and uncertain about the future, but you may rest assured that this current situation is being handled by our top officers, and that you are safe and secure in the Monroe County Sheriff's Headquarters."
I glanced over to Kim, who was looking at Heather, who was looking at me. I turned back to Mr. Gilbert as he continued. "You will be under our careful jurisdiction for the next few days, and will be housed in our facilities while we search for some way to reverse your current condition."
"Well, uh, I don't know if you can --" Heather started, but the deputy interrupted. "However, in the interest of your safety, you will all need to follow certain restrictions while you are here. First, you must always obey any commands I or the sheriff or any other approved officer gives to you. If a junior officer asks you to do something, please be sure that either I or Mr. Rolsen know about it."
My attention was starting to fade off. What was that smell, anyway? Part of the smell were those flowers down below the desk, but there was also something else. Would sting-y be the right word for it? It was definitely something crisp, baked... ah, it was definitely coming from the deputy. But what and where on the deputy?
"Second, starting as of now, you must stay within your designated residence for the remainder of your stay here. You may only go where you have permission and when you are properly accompanied by a handler. And under no circumstances may you leave the building, at any time."
"Are you keeping us here?" Ted blurted out.
"For your own safety..." Mr. Gilbert continued.
"Can we at least call our folks and let them know we're here?" Ted asked.
"All outside communication must be approved in advance by me or Mr. Rolsen, and held under the highest discretion..."
"What kind of joke is this?" Ted demanded.
"It has been highly recommended that all information relating to you and your uncertain physiological condition be kept classified from the public until you have been..."
"Screw this, then," Ted said. "How do I leave? I quit."
"You are currently under the protection of the Monroe County police, and it is our duty to maintain your presence..."
"Back off. I'm leaving," Ted said, leaping off the desk and running out the door, which had carelessly been left ajar.
"Oh, great," Mr. Gilbert said as he pulled out his radio. "Stevens! Mitchell! A squirrel's in the hallway. Try to intercept it, over. Miss Samson, would you please return them to the carriers and take them to the juvenile department while we handle this?"
"Myself?" she replied, but he was already out the door.
"All right. Fun's over. Back in the cages," she told us, somewhat sardonically.
"We're not really going to stay here too long, are we?" I asked as I headed back into the carrier.
"Whatever the sheriff says, goes. That's all I can tell you."
So once again we rode the carrier express through the hallways, with Kim hefting both carriers, one for each arm. There were a lot fewer people to wave at, this time. There was also an occasional bit of commotion, probably involving Ted. But we never ran into him or any of his chasers, and so it was an uneventful trip up to the double doors of the juvenile department.
The juvenile department was a bit more colorful than the rest of the building; at least the carpet wasn't another shade of gray. A small waiting area was set off to the side, and a "Personnel only" door on the other side, next to the receptionist's desk. The receptionist, who was some middle-aged woman with graying auburn hair, looked curiously at us before we were set down on the floor.
"Those are the kids from the forest?" the receptionist said.
"Yes," Kim said.
"Okay, already got a place set up for them. Through that door, second on the right."
"Thanks." She bent down and hefted us back up.
"Do you need help with one of those, dear?"
"No, I got them."
"Let me get the door for you," she said as she opened the personnel door.
"Thanks," Kim said as we entered the door.
That was when we heard the sounds of a boy crying, from behind one of the doors along the hallway. When we reached the second door on the right side of the hallway, Kim set us down to open the door. In that split second, I focused on which door the sounds were coming from. They came from further down the hall, but I had seen the hallway turn off to the left and continue onwards, so I couldn't be sure if it was the third door down, or the next door at the far end of the hallway. But I kept those two doors in mind as we entered the room.
"And here's your new home, for the next few days," Kim said putting us down and opening the cages. "I assume they'll bring more stuff in here eventually." I walked out and surveyed the room. Very sparse, first off. There was a simple bed in one corner, a desk on the other side, and a litter box...
Wait, a litter box? Did they expect us to USE that? Instead of an actual toilet?
"Dibs on the bed!" Ben said, breaking me out of my thoughts. As he ran across the room and scrambled up the bed, I noticed Ben seemed a lot more chipper than he did a few minutes ago. "Hey, are we going to get a TV, eventually?" he asked.
"Maybe," Kim said. "But I don't know. I'll see you later, maybe," she said as she left us.
And finally, for the first time since we arrived here, we were alone.
"I guess I'll be sleeping on the desk," Heather said, nonchalantly.
"Are they gonna bring us something to do, anyways? Like a board game, or a computer?" Ben asked.
"I wonder how they're doing with Ted, by the way?" Heather asked.
"He's probably still running around somewhere. Whatever happened to his stuff, anyway?"
So Heather and Ben went back and forth asking their questions. I had already snuck off to the heater beside the window and curled up beside it. I didn't really enjoy these fast-paced sort of conversations, where you had to keep talking in order to control the flow of conversation. Spouting off random questions and answers is such a waste of valuable think time. Besides, it's very toasty under here. I could just go right ahead and take a nap here. Nobody else seems to notice me...
Whoa, the door opened. I instantly woke up and turned to the door. In flew Ted, landing on all fours with an abashed look on his face. Whoever threw Ted in closed the door and left.
Ted looked up and said, "Well, I gave them a good running, at least."
"Ted," Heather said, "that was very cute of you, but running loose in a police station won't get us out of here any sooner."
"It's better than just plainly obeying them," Ted responded. "Don't you see? They're gonna keep us for months. Years, maybe. They're gonna perform all sorts of tests on us, and have us run in mazes, and inject us with--"
"That doesn't happen in real life," Heather interrupted.
"Turning into animals doesn't happen in real life!" Ted shot back.
"At the very least," Heather said, "let's wait and see what they're planning for us. It's not like they're going to put us down or anything."
"We shouldn't even be in here. We're supposed to be out on the streets, standing on a soapbox and telling everyone the earth is doomed," Ted said.
"We can do that after we leave. But right now, we have to cooperate."
"Hmph. I could have been home right now, watching TV and eating popcorn and never having to worry about police officers or the end of the world."
While Heather and Ted continued their argument, I hopped onto the bed, carefully avoiding my hurt leg, and sidled next to Ben. "So, uh, Ben, sorry about the rough-up, you know, earlier."
"The what?" he looked up at me.
"You know, back in the carrier, when I pushed you off my... tail. Sorry about that."
"Oh, sure, s'okay."
"Uh, it's what?"
"Okay. It's okay."
"Oh, good." I paused. "You sure?"
"I really wish they'd put a TV in here. There's nothing else to do," he said to himself.
Well, I was being left out again. I hobbled back to the heater and curled back up. And I sat there, listening to the drone of Ted, Heather, and Ben, until I fell asleep.
Chapter 4 - Pulled Together
Oh great, I thought, Andy is up again. He is the complete opposite of me when I get up in the morning. But then, he's always getting up at 5 in the morning to watch his cartoons, the really old ones that only get shown on syndication in the middle of the night. And then 2 hours later he's running around, taking glee in the fact that I am not a morning person and Mom is shouting at me to get out of bed for school. He pulls my covers off, tells me to wake up sleepyhead, and rustles my hair which I absolutely hate...
Wait. Why is he stroking my back?
Damn it. I'm still a raccoon. What does it say that my dreams are more realistic than reality right now?
My kid brother Andy really is here. So are my parents and my little sister Lizzy. They're all crowding around me. Dad is trying to tell me something. It sounds like, "It's okay. We don't blame you for any of this."
I have no idea where to begin with this. I look around our room. Ben finally got himself some video games, playing what sounds like a Pokemon game on a handheld console twice his size. I didn't see Heather or Ted anywhere; maybe they had gotten released from this gilded prison cell?
Or maybe, just maybe, the spell had worn off for them and they were free and human again; maybe the spirit had decided two messengers would be enough, and let Ted and Heather go. It felt appropriate. Ted had never wanted to go on this stupid trip anyway, and Heather loved the outdoors, not the sort of person a nature spirit would want to punish. Meanwhile, Ben was addicted to his modern lifestyle, and I? I was an isolationist teenager who didn't value other people's opinions, exactly the sort of person an ancient deity would want to punish. Maybe in some way, I deserved this.
Mom snapped her fingers in my face. I'd blanked out again, and I hadn't really cared. What if there were mental changes involved? Would I lose my humanity and become an ordinary raccoon eventually?
I shook myself awake. Mornings are always like this.
"Jeff? Are you still there?" Mom asked me.
"Yeah, I'm here," I said.
"Oh thank God he can still talk," Dad breathed.
"Jeff, I just want to say, you look really cool," Lizzy said. I had no idea if she was being honest or not. I think she picked that up from me.
"How are you feeling?" Mom asked.
"I'm good," I said. Neither of my parents were good at picking up dishonesty.
"Jeff, I called the school board, they said you can take as much time off from school as you need to recover." Thanks, Dad, that's exactly what I needed to hear.
"Does it hurt?" Mom asked.
"No, I'm fine," I said.
"I asked Mom to buy a collar for you," Andy said.
"Andrew!" Mom said.
"So that people would know you are a tame raccoon." If that had come from anyone but Andy, I would have been irritated. But Andy irritated me by default, so I shrugged it off as nonsense.
"What's it like being a raccoon?" Lizzy asked.
"Elizabeth!" Mom hissed.
"Very fuzzy," I said.
"The last thing Jeffrey needs right now is more talk about his condition," Mom said.
"I'm fine, really," I said.
"You're very strong," Dad said. "But we need you to keep holding on for us."
It was clear that nobody was really listening to me anyway. It felt quite foreboding. "Mom, Dad, what do you think of moving?"
"Never! Not as long as you're here like this, we're not going anywhere!" Mom said.
"Why would we move?" Dad asked.
"You might have to," I said carefully, "for your own sakes."
Dad shook his head. "I know things are confusing right now, but trust us. We'll be coming in every single day to check up on you. Don't give in, Jeff. You can still fight this, whatever this illness is."
"No, you don't get it. We were made this way on purpose. There's this nature spirit --"
"You are NOT a raccoon!" Mom said. "Please! We both want you to get better, but it won't happen unless you believe!"
"Mom, there's a nature spirit who turned us into animals. It said that it wanted everyone in the Western Hemisphere to leave immediately, or it would take us by force."
"Please, Jeffrey," Mom stroked my head. "For me. You have to fight these bad dreams, before they take control over you."
"Mom, this wasn't a dream! It really happened! It happened just after we got turned into animals!"
"Listen, Jeffrey, listen," Mom held my head in her hand and stared at me solemnly. "Whatever this was, it was clearly not the Lord's work. Whatever messages you think you have, they do not come from the Lord. So fight those demons. Don't let them win. You will be human again."
Well, I can't say I didn't try.
The door opened, and Kim was standing there. "Mr. and Mrs. O'Malley?" she said.
"No, please, just give us a bit more time," Mom said.
Kim nodded and left us alone. There was no point; I had nothing really left to say. Mom talked about how everyone at work wanted to wish me all the best, and how she wanted to bring in a batch of specially made cookies but nobody would let her. And then Dad talked about how I needed to stay positive, keep exercising, and keep hoping for a cure. There was no cure, I wanted to say. And I don't care about your coworkers, Mom. To be honest, all I really wanted was to go to sleep, and never wake up again. But I guess that wouldn't have fit their definition of "staying positive".
Kim came back in a half hour, and asked if they were ready to go. Mom gave me a hug before she left. "Don't worry, baby. I'll always love you, no matter what." Dad gave me a hug too, a bit reluctantly. Andy, the little jerk, stroked my butt -- I guess he was trying to stroke my tail. I was starting to consider chopping the thing off.
"Nice family," Ben said as they left.
"You get used to them," I said. "Did your family come today?"
"My mom lives in Seattle, she'll be here this weekend. My dad came by, just after you went to sleep. Dropped off my Game Boy."
"I'm glad you have folks who listen to you."
Ben backed up from his game to look at me. "Dude, you should be happy your parents aren't like mine."
"What, you mean your parents don't always push their agendas onto you?"
Ben paused. "My parents... they've never been very close."
"Yeah, but they're close to you, right?"
Ben lay on his back. "They both deny it, but I'm pretty sure I was an unexpected child. They got married a year after I was born -- Mom was only 19. Don't get me wrong, they're nice when they're around me. But I remember the things they said to each other, before they separated. My mom... she still resents the fact that he used to be this Harvard graduate who became a ground crew worker."
"I thought you said he was an architect."
He smirked. "He studied architecture, years ago, long before Mom was around. He was pretty good, too. I've seen his old sketches."
I nodded. This was not what I'd expected to hear. "My dad thinks I would make a good engineer at some point."
"Yeah, I heard about your test scores."
"Yeah but... I don't really want to go into engineering. I don't like working with other people's ideas. I guess... if I could have a dream job, it would be inventing. Because I like building things. And I like taking them apart. And I don't like having to talk them over with other people, trying to get them to see."
"At least you have the body shape to make that work. I have no idea how Ted's going to be a baseball star now."
"He was never going to be a baseball star anyway. So where is he? And where's Heather?"
"Heather wanted some quiet time to herself. And Ted got taken home."
"What?" Now THIS was big news to me. "Ted got to go home? Why does he get to go home?"
"Because his mom's a police officer, and she insisted he would be better protected at home. I don't know, the way they explained it, they said that keeping us separate could prove to be a better contingency, in case of a disaster."
"Eh, some nut driving a car into the building, saying we're the Devil's work or something. You wouldn't believe the stuff they say on the internet."
"Are we seriously in danger?"
"No, no, no, no, no. Not seriously. Anyways, I'm kinda glad Ted is out of here. You think he gets on everyone's nerves here?"
He said it like it was a question. Ben and Ted had this way of lashing out when they get stressed, and I think both of them get on everyone's nerves when they're like that, but truth be told, Ben was the one who tended to start these arguments. I would much rather bunk with Ted, smug jock that he is, than with Ben.
But what could I say? "Yeah, I'm glad too that he's not here."
Ben nodded to himself. "I think it helps that we're different species from Heather now."
"Oh come on," I scoffed. "That is such a pervy thing to say, you know that?"
Ben chuckled and started playing his Pokemon game again.
"So, was Heather's family here too?"
"Yeah. They didn't stay long, though. Heather got embarrassed and chased them off."
I laughed. "Why, was one of them Jimmy Carter in a boat?"
Ben looked up. "Huh?"
"Nothing." I paused. "So what are they going to do to us, anyway?"
"For now, they just want to keep an eye on us. I believe they're going to examine us at some point. But I haven't heard anything about release dates."
"Yeah, and what about the nature spirit?"
Ben smirked. "I don't think he's in any real hurry. He's left us alone for quite a while, hasn't he?"
"I'm not sure he's gonna give us a lot of time. How long do animals like us live?"
"I have the feeling the message is going to be spread with or without our involvement. Dad told me that rumors are already spreading on the internet about talking animals who talk like they're teenagers. A lot of people calling it an elaborate prank. But once people connect it to the park service... The police will probably keep acting as our go-between. I don't think we'll be leaving this place for a long time."
A chill went through my spine. "You seem awfully calm about this."
"Compared to the s*** I've lived through, this is almost like an extended vacation. You think we'll still have school in the fall?"
My heart was starting to race. This place really was our prison. There was no way to get out; all the doors and windows required human height and flexibility to operate. And I wasn't human anymore. No. Can't think about that. Anything else. All I could see was a phone, on a small table in the corner. "Does that phone over there work?"
"Only to call for an attendant. Basically, for Kim."
"I'd rather be alone for a while, if it's alright."
Ben shrugged. "Maybe Kim could find you a private place to rest." Just as I was about to respond, the door opened, and Heather walked in, followed by Kim. "Oh, Kim. Jeff was just asking about you."
"Welcome back, Jeff," Kim said as she dropped off a stack of books onto the bed. "Get enough sleep?"
"No," I said.
Heather bounced onto the bed and knocked over a book. Then she started reading. Leaving her to it, I bounded off the desk and walked to the door with Kim. I took a breath of fresh air; just getting out of that room took a huge weight off my mind.
"You hungry?" Kim asked.
I remembered that I hadn't eaten anything since this morning. "Yeah, actually."
"Cafeteria is this way. It's not 5-star cuisine, but they always have bread and peanut butter around." She set off on a slow walk, just a little faster than a jog for me. "I hope you'll forgive me for interrupting your sleep."
"It's fine. I'm glad Mom and Dad came by. What's this about Ted going home?"
"Oh, yeah. Tracy Kurst has one of the strongest backbone in the force. The sheriff wanted all four of you together when he made his introductions, but she went straight to him and insisted that, as a representative of the law, she had as much right to custody over you as we did."
"Lucky for him."
She gave me a sympathetic smile. "We'll beat this together. You know that, right? We'll find a way to get you back to normal."
Damn. Making me feel guilty for being pessimistic. Classic move.
As we kept walking, she spoke up, "Sheriff Rolsen already spoke with Heather and Ted. Nothing important, but he wants to assure you that we're taking your privacy seriously. None of you has to leave unless you want to. Your parent or guardian can take you home, but only if you want to."
"There is a medical team coming in tomorrow to give you three a physical examination. You can opt out of it, if you want, but we'd strongly recommend it, just to make sure you're healthy, and to see how much you differ from... you know, non-human animals."
A wave of itchiness passed over me. I felt my fur standing on end. I remembered, once again, that I was a naked raccoon, walking side-by-side with a giant 5-foot-tall woman. None of this was supposed to be normal. I swallowed it down and kept walking.
She noticed my grimace and quickly continued, "We have no reason to believe we'll find anything. But we don't want any surprises, right?"
The cafeteria wasn't terribly crowded. Two men were sitting at a table, reading some papers. Another man was eating leftover donuts from a box. Kim led me to another table, much closer to the counter, where the kitchen staff silently wiped clean. No matter where I looked, I could feel six pairs of eyes looking at me.
"Need a hand?" Kim said.
If I stood on my hind feet, my nose could just about reach the seat. With any luck, my finger claws could just about touch it. "Hold on," I said. I didn't want to be defeated this early by a chair. I grabbed the edge with both paws and, with the grip of an Olympic gymnast, hauled my chest up onto the chair, grabbing the headrest with one paw and scrambling upwards. "I'm good," I said.
"Be back in a minute," Kim said, heading towards one of the cooks.
... Alone. That's what I felt right now.
I always sat alone at lunch, but that was always a personal decision. Lunch, for me, was always a time to not have to think on someone else's behalf, and to go over whatever ideas were in my head at the time while chowing on a cold-cut sandwich wrap or a greasy uncooked cheeseburger. I knew I looked alone, but I never felt alone.
I'm a raccoon. I tried to process that thought once again. I'm a raccoon. I might never not be a raccoon, in the future, ever again.
The world felt like it was getting bigger, and I was getting smaller, getting sucked into oblivion.
Calm down. Deep breaths. I can handle this.
I'm a raccoon. A fluffy, naked raccoon. I'm going to die like one.
Damn it. Damn it! Gotta keep myself under control.
"You must be Jeffrey O'Malley," one of the men said. I hadn't noticed the two of them approaching me. "I'm Sheriff Rolsen. I've already spoken with the other three, so, to make sure we're all on the page..."
Yes, we were. He repeated the important things Kim told me, and more non-important things, like how not to get stepped on, and who wasn't to blame for this, and about schedules for mealtimes and visit times and workout times and sleeptimes, and so on. Kim returned with our sandwiches, and by the time we were finished, he was still going on about motivational encouragement and proper breathing techniques.
While he was talking, I noticed Kim had left me again, and was talking to the man sitting by himself at the table. Oh, now I recognized him. He was that guy who brought flowers earlier today. I wonder what their deal is?
"... and therefore, your best chance of prevention is to stay out of danger. As always, call on Kim or Kelly if you need assistance." Oh, right, Kelly is the name of the receptionist. I think he mentioned that 30 minutes ago.
"I understand, sir," I said for what must have been the thousandth time. How many minutes is a thousand seconds. About twenty? Maybe the five thousandth time, then.
"Good, I think that about wraps it up for now," the sheriff said. "Now get a good night's rest. Tomorrow is going to be an important day for all of us."
Getting up seemed to get Kim's attention, and she quickly swung by to guide me back to our room. I wondered how long I was really going to stay here, and if I would soon know these hallways by heart. God, I hope I didn't stay here as long as Sheriff Roslen implied. I was actually looking forward to school soon. We'd be studying for the SATs soon, and I always loved taking those standardized tests; all the fun of Academic Bowl, without any 15-second time pressures. It would have been nice to have something about my intelligence to boast about, ever since I took those C's in art. How was I to know they looked down on stick figure comics?
"I see he gave you a lot to think about," Kim said, noticing my scowl.
"Who was that guy you were with?" I asked.
"Douglas? Just an intern. We had a misunderstanding last night, that's all."
"Is he your boyfriend?"
Kim stopped. "I don't think that's any of your business, to be honest."
I looked down, ashamed.
She began walking again. After a few minutes of silence, she said, "He started working here a few months ago. I kept an eye on him, showed him how things worked around here. We had a nice friendship. But he wants something more. Something I can't give him right now." She frowned. "I don't know how much you know about relationships." Then she laughed. "I'm sure the last thing you want to hear is some workplace drama. Especially involving your caretaker."
"I think it's good to know what sort of people I'll be living with for a while."
She smiled. Whether it was relief or sympathy or pity, I don't know. I read too much into these things.
As we entered the hallway, I heard the sounds of crying again. Except this time, it was a girl. A very familiar-sounding girl. When we heard the sobs, Kim rushed forward and opened the door to our room. The sobs were coming from inside.
Heather was rocking herself back and forth, buried beneath her books, crying into the bedsheets. Ben was clutching the blankets, helplessly turning towards us. Heather may have been a small bunny, but her cries were sharp and shrill.
"It's all my fa-fa-fault!" she wept loudly, shaking the walls with her wails.
"Shhh! Shhh! Nothing's your fault, Heather! Everything's okay!"
"I'm the one who started this! If I hadn't suggested this stu-upid trip, we'd still be safe and sound at home..." she broke down in incoherent tears.
"It's okay, it's okay, everything will be alright," Kim hushed her, stroking her, taking her in her arms and hugging her. Heather tried crying loudly again, as if to protest, but Kim's gentle rocking managed to soothe her down.
The door was still wide open. With everyone distracted, this seemed like a good time to explore a little. Besides, I still needed some alone time.
As I stepped outside, I had two directions to walk in. One of those directions was guarded by a receptionist, so I chose the other way. I decided to check on those two doors I had noted to myself earlier today. Not that I really wanted a conversation with a boy right now, but I wanted the adventure, and to have at least something resolved tonight.
I scratched on the next door over, which was about as good as these raccoon paws were going to do at this height. If I had a stepladder... Nobody came to the door, so I went over to the other one.
It occurred to me that whoever was listening might have fallen asleep by now anyway. Or they might have already left. Or someone else was in these rooms now. Still, what else did I have to do with my time? After scratching the door, I slammed my paws on it for good measure.
The door didn't open. I didn't even see a light turn on. Was this even a good idea? Well, what's the worst anyone could do to me now? I headed over to the next door over -- maybe I could just scratch on ALL the doors -- when it opened up behind me.
There was a young boy, about as old as a fifth-grader, dressed in pajamas, looking at me curiously.
"Uh, hi," I said.
"Are you a pukka?" he asked.
"Um, no. I'm, uh, actually a high schooler."
He blinked. "Did you get a curse?"
"Sort of, I guess. We're working it out."
He checked down the hallways -- maybe to see if anyone was watching, maybe to see if someone was pulling a prank. He stepped out and approached me. "I saw a squirrel walking around earlier. Was he also cursed?"
"Yeah, that would be Ted. What was he doing, anyway?"
"Not much. There was a big fight between the sheriff and a lady. Then she stormed off, and he, the squirrel, ran after her."
"That sounds about right. That was his mother, by the way."
"I thought the sheriff was going to arrest her."
"I don't think that's going to happen. Not this late, anyways."
"What's it like, being a raccoon?" he asked, suddenly.
"Um... sort of like being a human. Except, you're much shorter. Also," I crossed my eyes a bit, "it hurts a little trying to make out the color red."
"Do you eat garbage?"
"... I hope it doesn't come to that."
"Yeah, but if you tried, would it taste good?"
"Like I said, I hope it doesn't come to that."
"What sort of garbage do raccoons eat?"
I didn't like the way this conversation was headed. So I decided to take control right away. "You were crying earlier today, weren't you?"
His face went red immediately. "That ... was someone else. It bugged me too, so I told the cops to make them stop."
"Come on. I know it was you."
"It was NOT! You liar!"
Kim stepped around the corner. "What's going on, here? Carl, shouldn't you be in bed?"
"Y-yes, ma'am," he said, quickly stepping to the door, throwing me a dirty look before he closed the door.
"And why are you wandering around out here? You know, it's dangerous to walk around the station unchaperoned."
"I wanted some time alone. Who was that kid?"
"Don't worry about Carl. He's just here overnight. He'll be gone in the morning."
"Now, let's get you to your room! No more wandering around for tonight!"
Wonderful, our own personal warden. Every police station should have one. I grumbled and went into the room, to be locked in for the night.
My problems didn't matter, I guess, compared to Heather, who lay facing the wall, curled up against the pillow, still breathing. I realized, with my lack of tact over the past couple of hours, that I wasn't likely to improve matters, so I walked over to Ben, and looked over his shoulder as he played his game.
"Dude. Back off."
"This room needs a TV," I said.
"Go read one of Heather's books if you're bored."
"Did Ted leave his cell phone behind, by any chance? What happened to all his stuff?"
"Probably went back home with home. What funny ideas are you getting?"
"The kind of ideas that keep me from going crazy."
"Do some drawing. They've got pencils and paper in the drawer. I always loved your little stick figure comics where everyone gets murdered."
I wasn't in the mood. I jumped up on the chair and then the desk and lay on my back, staring at the ceiling. Raccoons were nocturnal, weren't they? I wondered if I was going to stay up all night, or what my new sleep schedule would be. Was I going to start eating garbage at some point? Would I become used to eating maggots and moldy bread? I closed my eyes and waited for sleep to come. What I really wished I could have, right then, was an ice-cold soda.
Chapter 5 - Reflections
It was a full week before Heather finally noticed something. “Nobody new has come in here since we got here.”
It took a while for Ben to understand. “You mean the other rooms?”
“Yes. Aside from Kim and the other officers and our family members, we’ve been completely alone since then.”
“That’s... not quite ‘alone’, then.”
“I don’t think we’re ever getting out of here.”
I smirked. Now she was starting to realize? I’d come to terms with our imprisonment just three days ago. Maybe if she hadn’t been locked in her head... no, I couldn’t hold that against her. We’d all been keeping ourselves distracted over the last few days. Ben had kept on playing his video game, beating it and playing again with self-imposed restrictions. I had tried drawing some comics again. Alas, raccoon thumbs weren’t designed for holding a pencil too long, so I’d taken up finger painting instead. Well... it was kind of a comic-inspired finger painting, with supervillains and giant robots and death traps, facing down a shades-and-mohawk-wearing hero with a sharp aim and a beautiful woman at his side. Ben loved them, and Kim seemed amused by them, while Heather just ignored them. Well, she spent all her time reading and doing sudoku, so what does she know?
That’s not to say we all sat in our rooms all day. Every morning and just before sunset -- the main times we were all awake at the same time -- the officers would escort us to the cafeteria. Over the past few days, our diets had changed a bit. Heather nibbled on garden salads and raw cream of wheat. Ben avoided the salads (and refused to eat cheese), but ate the raw wheat, and corn and fruits and peanut butter. I was the only one still eating meat by the end of the week, but my taste for mustard and pickle relish had vanished. Even ketchup tasted too sweet. And eating just one burger filled me up quickly, which irritated Kim to no end.
“You need to eat some vegetables, young man,” she would say, in one of her usual babysittter moments. “It’s not healthy, especially for a raccoon, to just eat hamburgers.”
She also insisted that we exercise every day after dinner. Real animals, like humans, got exercise in the wild, so why shouldn’t we? While all three of us could use the treadmill (probably all at once, if not for our different paces), none of the other equipment was designed for us. So we improvised, although not all our inventions met with success.
The problem was this: while Heather and Ben were diggers and runners, raccoons were climbers. And Heather and Ben had very different strengths in running and digging. After a couple of visits from the veterinarians, we settled on crunches and push-ups, with a limited sort of hind-bench-pressing for Heather and Ben. And we each got a turn on the treadmill while the other two did their stretches.
I asked, at one point, whether Ted was getting this same exercise regimen at home. “His mother knows what’s best,” was all Kim said.
Ted did show up twice during the week. The first was the day after Heather had her breakdown. Ted showed up in the morning, concealed in a rolling suitcase led by her mother. Ted said it shook really badly in there, but compared to a pet carrier, it looked to me like a private carriage. I still envy him. He and Heather shared some private words and managed to lift her spirits enough for the next couple days.
He showed up again a few days later, carrying gifts for the rest of us and telling us news about the world outside. It seemed that, since the police had not given any further information, the news about talking teenage animals would quickly fallen into the realm of “crank news”, and quickly been forgotten in favor of real news. No mention at all had been made of the spirit or genie that had transformed us.
My parents, at least, refused to nurture these rumors. They visited every day, offering no new information, other than what Aunt So-And-So and Uncle Whoever were gonna do for me, and whatever research was just on the brink of being able to cure us. Heather’s parents showed up every day, too, but only to pick up books and drop new ones off. None of them offered anything other than “You’ll get through this.”
Ben’s parents... well, his Mom showed up, once. It all went very awkwardly. A couple days later, when Ben’s Gameboy ran out of batteries, it was Ted he asked.
“Kim,” I had finally asked yesterday, “are we going to die in a few years? Like real animals?”
Heather and Ben were distracted. She frowned at me. “Don't ever let me hear you talking about dying, you hear me? Things WILL get better.”
I wasn't sure if I was in denial or if I had accepted it and gotten depressed. I hadn’t broken down like Heather, or gotten distant like Ben had. Thinking back, those first couple days as a raccoon were some of the most exciting days I’d had all summer. And as the days went by, things started settling again into a normal pattern. While Heather and Ben were still struggling, I was actually accepting this.
A couple hours after Heather finally realized we were alone, Ted stopped by again, with his mom rolling a suitcase into our room, followed by Kim and the desk secretary carrying a huge weapons case.
“I have an announcement,” Ted said. “I’m taking you all to a pool party.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Whose pool?” Ben asked.
“Mine, of course! I thought, since the weather is nice, and summer is ending, we should all go out for a swim. When’s the last time we all had a swim together?”
“Probably not since middle school,” I said.
“You’ve been to my house, haven’t you, Jeff? For my birthday last February?”
“Two Februaries ago, actually. Because last February, you were at a family wedding or something.”
Ted smirked. “Always like you to keep track of the details. Anyways,” he gestured to the two cases, “I’ve arranged transportation for everyone in these refurbished carriages.”
“Are there guns in there?” Heather asked.
“Aha, no! That is part of the clever disguise! For inside, there is comfortable furniture, an audio system, a snack bar, and not a single weapon! Save us!”
“Why is it so important to disguise it?” I asked.
Ted didn’t have an answer, so his mother spoke. “The police department would like to contain any rumors concerning your movements, for your own safety.”
“See?” Ted pointed to some cautionary notes on the side. “To any unsuspecting passersby, it would look just like dropping off some guns.”
I had this uneasy feeling there was more to this story, but Ben interrupted me. “Is it just us, then?”
“I’ll be going along,” Kim said, “to keep an eye on you. And to keep your mother company.”
“Are we all going in the big case? Or, what's the smaller suitcase for?” Ben asked.
Ted smiled. “Well, I was hoping Heather and I could ride together in the trunk... and, well...”
“Sounds good to me,” Ben said immediately.
I watched Ted’s reaction, who merely looked back at me. Suddenly, I realized what he was saying.
“I’ll ride with Ben, if there’s room.”
“Don't worry, there's plenty of room in the small suitcase for you! Just, ah, give us a bit of time to repack!”
By “repack”, he meant moving a stack of beanbags, his MP3 player, and a few bags of Ritz-bits peanut butter sandwich crackers to the trunk. Which left me with zero padding between my rump and the hard plastic siding. Tucked into a pocket above us was a icepack, which kept the air from getting too stuffy, especially once the zipper closed shut, and left me and Ben in our coffin, illuminated with orange and yellow neon “FUNKY” and “TUBULAR” stickers.
“Someday, I’ll get a girlfriend,” Ben said.
“Does having a girlfriend net you special privileges all of a sudden?”
He turned to me, and jumped back against the wall. I blinked, which made him even stiffer.
“What?” I said, fumbling to the side as the suitcase leaned back and started to rumble forward. “What?” I asked again.
“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re glowing.”
I blinked again, and held my paws in front of my face.
“No, I mean... not strongly. It must be the light...”
I didn’t know much about raccoons. Admittedly the closest I had ever gotten to one before was on the side of the road with a nest of flies in its stomach. I certainly hadn’t charged at them in the dead of night with a flashlight in my hand, chasing them from the garbage cans. But I had seen pictures of raccoons at night, their eyes glowing in the dark. I had always assumed that was some kind of aftereffect with the flashbulb. How did raccoon eyes work?
Still, I kept my face turned to the wall. This was something I’d have to ask Heather or Kim about. Or just read myself on Wikipedia. If Ted has a computer.
“Haven’t you ever wanted a girlfriend, Jeff?”
“Of course,” I said. “But I don’t see why you have to be around them 24/7.”
A long pause. “You really have no idea, don’t you?”
“What it’s like to be in love.”
Now this was silly, I thought. I’d seen plenty of movies where the hero spends a few moments with his beloved wife, or some time ogling a pretty woman who might become his wife in a sequel. But those things didn’t preoccupy him; he had terrorists to kill, bad guys to stop, and world governments to save. That’s what true happiness is: having power and making an impact on the world.
So what was Ben getting at? That having a girlfriend was better than all that? I mean... if you got older, you would have the bonus of making out and having sex and then having kids. But that would really change you, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t be this cool action hero, any more, you’d just be... some kind of dad? Dads aren’t cool. Sequels where the hero becomes a dad always suck.
“You’re mad jealous, aren’t you?”
“Because Ted and Heather get their own luxury suite while we get the cramped suitcase.”
“.... Kinda, yeah.”
He paused. “You realize there is a difference between being nice to someone, and giving them privileges.”
“In one, you do it because you want to. In the other, because you have to.”
“... So why do you want to be nice to Ted? After all the crap you’ve been giving him?”
“I know I said I didn’t like Ted,” Ben said. “But I still give him my respect. Everyone deserves some time with their girlfriend.”
“Well, how about this...” I said, as our suitcase was suddenly lifted into the air, and landed on the car seat. “Why is it that people in love always seem to ignore the people around them?”
“Why shouldn’t they? When I get one, I’ll do exactly the same to her.”
The car doors slammed. “Okay,” Kim’s voice echoed, “We’ve got a half hour trip ahead of us, so sit tight until we get there.”
“I hope she won’t be the jealous type,” I smirked.
“Because you’ll be splitting your time between her and a Gameboy.”
“Shut up, Jeff,” he snorted.
The engines roared to life. And we were off.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Thanks to the icepack, it didn’t get too hot in there, it was just boring being with Ben. “Wish you’d brought your Gameboy?” I asked a few minutes in.
“Wish I had my PSP,” he said. “I’m running out of games to play.”
We talked a bit about video games, then about people on the internet, and then about what if people in the 1800s had internet. Sometimes it’s good to have aimless conversations. Plus, what a relief it was to get out of the police station, just for a bit.
Ted’s house was a wide single-story house with a big neatly-trimmed front lawn. Ted and Heather led us down the path to the front patio, and then we went down this side path along a rock garden with small cacti, to a gate leading to the fenced back yard.
“Wow! Look at the size of that pool!” Ben said as we went through. It was really no larger than a typical backyard pool, though I guess at our size it could have been an Olympic-sized pool, but ten times deeper.
“Hey, thanks Dad!” Ted shouted, to his dad, a gray-haired spectacled man who knelt beside the inflatable yellow pool chair, wrapping up an electric air pump.
“I call dibs!” Heather shouted.
“We can share the pool chair, can’t we?” Ben said. “It’ll hold us both.”
“How about if I just stick you in the cup holder?” Ted said.
“Oh! Pool noodles! I want to ride one of those!” Heather said. There were already a bunch sitting in the pool, waiting for us.
While the other three did their own thing, I crept to the edge of the pool and looked in. The dim silhouette of a raccoon looked back at me. Like one of those virtual reality simulators, I tried out some facial expressions and flexing my paws. I couldn’t really be a raccoon, I thought to myself, because real raccoons wouldn’t do this sort of thing.
“Hey, Jeff?” Ted shouted, already swimming in the water. “Let’s see you dive!”
“Yeah, Jeff! Come on in!” Ben said from atop the chair.
“You can do it, Jeff!” Heather joined in with the rest of their shouts.
I shrugged, and back up, trying to figure out a good approach. One thing I found out at the gym is that raccoons are not built to be fast runners, or powerful jumpers. Our legs are too short compared to our bodies. After a couple false starts, I finally managed to hop fast enough to leap off and tumble backwards into a semi-cannonball.
“Woohoo, Jeff!” Ben shouted. “Have you considered a career in Olympic diving?”
“Shut up!” I shouted at him.
Heather decided she wanted to dive -- as a rabbit, that meant doing a running start from the back lawn, and leaping into the pool. Ted took a dive as well -- “What I need is a 10-foot diving board!” he said, and I envisioned him falling for a full minute from that height. Even Ben, with his short legs, managed to jump clear and make a smooth dive. Their bodies were all much more streamlined than mine. I wish I could say I wasn’t jealous.
Running and diving and swimming quickly took a toll on us, and after a few minutes we’d all settled down, laying on noodles or the pool chair beneath the partly cloudy skies. Better than being indoors, at least. Thank God.
Ted’s mom came out and called us in for lunch -- after we dried ourselves off a bit. We had sesame seed bagels, celery sticks with peanut butter, and Rice Krispie treats for dessert. Soon Ben and Heather were back to energetic mode again.
“You two go ahead,” Ted said. “I’ll catch up in a bit.”
As they walked off, I suddenly realized Ted looked rather nervous.
“Ted? What’s up?”
He gave a squirrely smile. “Wanna see my room? You gotta see the set-up me and my Dad put together.” He took off down the hall, and I followed as his mom put away our dishes.
Even if we hadn’t been shrunk, his room was huge, maybe 25 feet wide in both directions. There was a bed against one wall, a flat-screen TV on the other, a desk with huge stacks of magazines and books on the far wall, and a closet full of games and movies just beside the hall door. Being an only child must be nice.
What I had first dismissed as leftover Christmas decoration turned out to be what Ted wanted me to see. Streams of tinsel that hang from the ceiling, had been tied or taped or wrapped around different points of the bedroom. One end went to a short air-conditioning fan by the door, which is where Ted started climbing. He leapt up the tinsel and made his way upwards, to the central hub. We waved at me when he got to the top.
“Pretty cool, huh? My dad set it up so I could move around easier.”
“Isn’t that a pretty long fall?” I asked.
“Nah, I’m a squirrel! I get used to it!” he leapt across the streams of tinsel to the one leading down to his desk.
Meanwhile, I walked over to his movie closet, following one stream down to the door handle, besides which an empty bookshelf had been re-purposed as a ladder. I looked at the desk and put two and two together. “Did those books all come from this bookshelf?”
“Yeah. That was my first mode of transportation -- staircases. Didn’t work as well -- I have too many places to get to, and not enough books. The tinsel works much nicer.” He flipped through the papers and pulled a magazine out. He leapt down some books and crossed the room to me.
“See that? That’s what I want to do someday.” It was an article about a squirrel wearing a lifevest and riding a jet ski, titled “Nuttiest Jet Skier!”
“Ride a jet ski? As a squirrel?”
“Except I’m going to be a professional about it! I’ll show up at weddings, parties, birthdays, riding across the waves and waving for the cameras! Won’t be the only thing I’ll do, though. My dad says he’ll help build me a motorcycle, and I’ll be the world’s first squirrel dirtbiker!”
“Doesn’t seem like there’d be a lot of call for a squirrel dirtbiker.”
“Trust me, once my name gets out there, everyone will be trying to book me. I’ll be famous. I’ll have my own franchise. I’ll have books written about me, interviews following me, celebrities making out with me...”
“That might be going too far.”
“Trust me, when you’re a celebrity, everyone wants to make out with you. You’ll see.”
“So... what does Heather think?”
“I haven’t told her anything about it. I didn’t want to come off like I’m enjoying this.” He suddenly got very quiet. “Could I ask you a question?”
“Have you noticed any other changes lately?”
“... Like what?”
“Like, you know. You ever just get distracted by something, and then you snap out of it, and you have no idea why you were thinking of it?”
“All the time, man. You know I do that all the time.”
“Yeah, but... I don’t mean like, whatever you think about. Numbers, or books, or something. I mean like... things like food, or...” he hesitated, “... nesting.”
“A day or two ago, I was up there, on that floorlamp, just imagining I was in a tree. Then I was thinking, this is kind of like a nest. And I thought, it's too hard. I need something soft. And before I can stop myself, I’m holding a piece of tinsel in my mouth, trying to gnaw it off. Tearing my gums apart.”
“Don’t laugh at me, Jeff, I'm serious. Have you, like, I don’t know, done any raccoon activities, impulsively? Started washing things obsessively? Dug through garbage? Things like that?”
I was not even a full raccoon, and I felt offended. Just because I looked like a raccoon didn’t mean I had to act like one.
But then I remembered the other changes. Our change in diets. How I ended up sleeping during the day, and how the rest of us were up and about mostly during twilight hours. And when Ben noticed my eyes were glowing.
“Or like... does Heather do anything rabbit-like? Or Ben, doing whatever mice do? You think that --?”
“Something is happening, yes,” I said.
“We’re not done changing.”
I paused. “How far do you think?”
“... I didn’t want to tell Heather about it. I didn’t want her to worry. And, you know Ben. He and I tend to butt heads a lot. I wanted to ask you, because you’re a smart guy. You just, sort of know these things. Do you think...?”
“... Well, it depends what that spirit wants. We’re at his mercy.”
“Geez, what was even that guy’s problem? What lesson was he supposed to teach us? Did he really think we were going to tell the world about this?”
“That’s kinda what I told Ben a few days ago.”
“... We’re gonna go all the way, aren’t we?”
“We don’t know that.”
“... I knew it,” he said quietly.
From the kitchen, Ted’s mom was scrubbing the dishes as the ceiling fan squeaked and hummed. From outside, Ben and Heather were shouting and splashing in the pool. From somewhere even further away, someone was out mowing their lawn. In the middle of this neighborhood, we were just two tiny animals, sharing a silence that drowned out everything.
“Hey, man, it’ll be fine,” I said. “Being a raccoon is kind of fun. We can handle it a little while longer.”
“Yeah,” he said, scratching his ear and looking away. “If I die as a squirrel, though... I want to die famous. Not like some ordinary squirrel, dying in the middle of nowhere. Eaten by a hawk.”
“That would still be a badass way to go,” I said. “Even better, fighting a hawk.”
“With a tiny-sized sword,” Ted said. “Plunged into its head.”
“I read that birds are actually considered dinosaurs, by scientists. So, kind of like dragon-fighting, actually.”
“Naw, man, if we’re going that route, I want to ride one. A hawk, with an actual harness and reins. Flying at ten thousand feet.”
“They go pretty fast, don’t they? It’ll be like your own private jet.”
“Yeah, except no one but me is allowed on. Anyone else, the hawk will just launch you off and try to eat you.”
“I think hawk vision,” I said, “is better at long-distance acuity than for short distances.”
“Yeah, yeah, a-cute-titty. Steer myself to the nearest beachfront, and BAM! Checking out all the babes.”
I could have asked if he thought he’d still keep his attraction to hot women. instead I asked, “Think I could tag along and sneak some bagels?”
“I’ll let you have your own private condo along the beach. A penthouse apartment facing the beach. You can have your own zipline to ride to the bottom.”
“I think you’re overestimating my upper body strength.”
“Fine. You’ll ride in a little hammock, then we’ll have a motor to ride it back up. We’ll have to go down to, like, a palm tree, so no one else will mess with it. And we’ll have another condo there, of course, so everyone will see us as we come down, and we’ll have big beach parties every night.”.
“How are we going to afford all this?”
“You kidding? You know how much people will pay for a squirrel performer? I’ll do some shooting for a commercial one day, get a huge paycheck, and spend the next few weeks soaking up the sun.”
“On your private hawk.”
“On OUR private hawks. If I can train one, why not train a whole flock?”
I laughed. "Let's give every squirrel in the city their own private hawk.”
“Yes. A whole squadron of hawk-flying squirrels.”
The front door slammed open. A police radio was flaring up, a hundred voices all at once. “Tracy!” Kim said flatly, as she quieted the radio.
I peeked out of the bedroom. “Everything okay?” I asked.
“Hold on,” Ted’s mom held up a finger, focusing on Kim’s hurried whispering. Ted’s mom didn’t react immediately, but after a few seconds, she looked out the window, and hurried outside. “... and they need all the help they can,” Kim spoke up as she followed her.
“What’s going on?” Ted walked over, as I hurried to the kitchen. Our vacation was about to get an early check-out.
“Heather, Ben,” Ted’s mom said, “you two get out of the pool and dry yourselves off. You’re going in my car.” She turned around and saw us. “Jeff, Teddy, get to the garage. We’re all taking my car.”
Ted jumped. “What? Where?”
“No questions. Hurry!” She grabbed a radio off the counter and rushed to the hallway. Kim chased after her to the front door, saying, “You know what you’re doing. They’re yours now. Good luck,” before she raced outside.
“Come on, Jeff,” Ted said, nudging me to the garage. There were two parked cars there, Tracy’s squad car and a family car. Ted’s dad came in with a towel, waving frantically to Ben and Heather. Fortunately, the garage doors were already open, and as soon as Ted’s dad had the squad door open and ushered us inside, Ted’s mom ran in, wearing her uniform and carrying a duffle bag.
“What’s going on?” Heather asked, but Ted’s dad interrupted her: “What’ll we do when we get there?”
“Hold out as best we can,” Ted’s mom said.
“Where are we going?” Ben asked.
“Police station!” Ted’s dad said as the engine reared to life. The radio came alive as well, people talking over each other. “159! Need assistance on Corridor and Blackwell!”
“157! Unruly mob at the south entrance! Requesting backup!”
“This is 162! I need backup! Repeat! I need ---”
“Mom, dad!” Ted finally cut in. “What’s going on?”
We zoomed past the neighborhoods, lights flaring. Far ahead of us was another cop car -- Kim’s, I realized. Ted’s mom finally spoke. “Something happened at the state forest.”
The car suddenly shook. At an intersection, Kim turned right while we turned left. Through the back window, I saw a deep blue cloudburst growing on the horizon.
“What’s happening?” Heather asked.
“We don’t for sure, but it started last night. Reports of strange beasts attacking nearby houses, and people disappearing everywhere. We weren’t sure what to make of it at first.”
We felt the car shake again. I looked back at the clouds, racing towards us, shifting and churning, flashing with lightning. Below, a dark carpet of fog was leading it, smothering the city.
“A few minutes ago... something much bigger happened, I don’t know. That fog behind us... it’s coming from the forest. It’s getting larger and we have no idea what’s going on inside of it.”
The last of the voices on the radio suddenly went silent.
Chapter 6 - The Silent Fog
As soon as the fog hit us, a few miles from the station, everything suddenly went quiet. The radio turned off, the lights went dim, and the car suddenly started rattling. Ted’s mom wrestled with the steering for a moment, steering around the cars that started skidding on the road. And then all six of us were sitting in the dark fog as the wind howled, the thunder boomed, and people outside began shouting in terror.
“This is not good,” Ted’s mom said as she flicked the siren on and off, and tried the car horn, as she continued driving.
“That’s strange,” Ted’s dad said. “Did this storm just suck up all the power?”
Not even the streetlights were on. We were driving through a thick layer of fog, barely able to see 20 feet in front of us, with no way to signal to any other car. Ahead of us, we heard car crashes piling up against each other.
“Time to fall back on old tech,” Ted’s mom said, pulling out a whistle. “Hey, can one of you kids open the cargo box? There should be some flares in there. Look for a small red case with black clasps.”
We pried the lid off the box and marveled at the contents. Inside there was a neat arrangement of tools, appliances, batteries, cables, and cases containing more supplies inside -- a tool for every emergency possible.
As we fished around for the case, Ted’s dad opened the door and caught the road in a brisk walk. With the thickness of this fog, the car could only go at a slow crawl anyway -- just as well, for even through the fog we could see the outlines of cars crashed into the sidewalks. As we rode on, Ted’s dad blew his whistle and waved his arms to get people to clear, sometimes holding up his arms to warn us about an obstacle ahead.
“Found them,” Heather said.
“Good. Keep them handy, in case the crowd behind gets unruly.” We looked behind us, and saw that already our car had gathered a number of followers, drivers who had left their cars and pedestrians who needed somewhere safe to go. Sometimes we had to take detours, and at one point where a bunch of cars had formed a solid wall along the road, Ted’s dad had to scout out a path along the grass.
“Maybe it would be easier if we walked too,” I said.
“Nobody leaves the car, until I say so,” she said, straining through the fog.
After several detours and workarounds, the sheriff’s headquarters finally came into view. It had been a full week since we’d gotten to see the outside -- not that there was much to see in this fog. A barricade had been hastily made around the entrance, formed by traffic barriers and police cars, their engines still running.
“How can the cars run if they have no power?” I asked.
“Cars only need power to start up. And run the lights and radios. But if they’re already running, all they need then is a tank of gas. Tough luck for anyone with an electric car, though.”
Seeing us, the officers moved aside a barricade to let us park. Ted’s mom parked the car and opened the doors for us and had us walk out. Either Ted’s mom figured we didn’t need the discretion anymore, or that the fog would provide enough of it for us.
Inside, the station was in chaos. Not a single light was working, not a single phone was ringing, and by the people running around and shouting, it seemed not a single radio was working either. Not even flashlights were working, even as two officers to the side were trying to grind out a flicker of light from a hand-cranked flashlight.
“Ah, the teenagers!” said one of the secretaries. “Thank you, Mrs Kurtz! Where’s Kim?”
“Gone to provide backup. I know I was supposed to go, but I couldn’t leave Ted behind. Not to this.”
The secretary nodded. “Well, if you could provide some assistance, we’d appreciate it. The sheriff’s calling for volunteers all around. We need people who can restore order throughout the city. Radios, phones, satellite, internet, even the Western Union telegram doesn’t work.”
“They still use that thing?” Ted interrupted.
“Mostly for emergencies,” the secretary said. “Last I heard, they’re trying to get a weather balloon to lift a distress signal above the clouds. Right now, our main concern is making sure everyone in the city is accounted for. If you know anyone who can join a search party --”
“As long as you can watch over the kids, I’ll do what I can,” Ted’s mom said.
“Here, kids,” the secretary pulled up a familiar pet carrier. “This is more necessary now than ever.”
We got in without argument. There wasn’t anything to say. Someone started shivering next to me. Heather clung to Ted as the door closed on us.
As we passed through the hallways, we heard metal poles banging against the walls, and boots squeaking against the floors. We heard Deputy Ed shouting in the halls: “Stevens! Thompson! Get that bottled water distributed out back, now!” We entered the juvenile department, finding it much more populated since we left it, mostly with toddlers and preschool-age kids. I wondered if they were officers’ kids, or if they had just been found outside, waiting for their parents somewhere.
At least our halls were still empty for now, though there was one person who was waiting for us.
“Who is that?” Ben said. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting an answer, but I recognized him.
“Mrs Clarence,” he backed away from the door, panic on his face. “Where’s Kim?”
“On duty,” she said. “What are you doing here, Doug?”
“I volunteered to watch the halls. I thought Kim worked in the office now.”
“That’s not for me to discuss. You watch these kids until I get back.”
“Of course,” he nodded, staring out at the lobby while Mrs Clarence unlocked our room and deposited us inside.
“I can’t see a thing!” Ted said. Ben and I looked at each other; we could see just fine.
“I’ll find some candles for the room. In the meantime, just sit tight while we get things under control.” She turned and left the room, locking the door behind us.
We sat there, clustered around the carrier, in the darkness, listening to the chaos outside, quiet and washed out.
“That was a good time, Ted. Thanks for inviting us,” Ben said coolly.
“Yeah, sure,” he grinned. “It was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
“You guys,” Heather said. “We need to talk about what’s happening.”
I shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?”
“This is our fault, you realize…”
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Ben interrupted.
“Swarms of beasts. Riots. Panic. People are dying out there.”
“We did nothing wrong!” Ben said. “That damn spirit is punishing everyone for no good reason!”
“Even so, we have a responsibility...”
“All we did was go on a hike! We’re not responsible for this f***ed-up mess!”
“Damn it, shut up, Ben!” Ted snapped. “You didn’t have to go on the hike in the first place! If you didn’t want to come, then why didn’t you stay at home?”
“You think I wanted this?!” Ben shouted back, while Heather tried to calm both of them down.
I hate conflicts. And I especially hate conflicts between guys I know. So I did the only thing I could think of to get their attention off each other: I leaped onto the bed, grabbed a book and began ripping out the pages.
Was that a smart thing to do? In hindsight, I might have already lost my head. But it worked. Heather turned and screamed, which shut up the other two. “What are you doing?! Those are my dad’s!” She leaped up and began kicking the books out of my lap.
Something happened. Something snapped within me. It was like, at that moment, I had reduced the whole world down to ripping those pages out of that book, and then that world was knocked away from me. I pushed Heather back. I fell to all fours and I bared my teeth and I--
-- tumbled through the blackness, fighting off a monster that was trying to rip out my throat. I felt this burning heat growing inside me -- like the fear and terror inside me were alive. Ii sank my claws into its flesh and left smoldering scars across its arms. I could feel the fire consuming me. The hairs down my back burned themselves into cinders, flaking away into ash, and the whole world was cast with the thick smoke of burning fur.
Then overhead, the moon burst through the fog, pinning me to the smoke, like I was a specimen pinned with needles made of moonlight. I felt myself grow cold -- colder than ice. The fur crinkled and wrinkled back into shape, but still it felt numb and lifeless beneath me. Even my mind felt cold numb. The monster fell backwards and turned its head up to me. I recognized this monster.
It was a human. It was --
“Jeff! Jeff! Wake up!”
I clawed at the human, except it wasn’t a human anymore; it was a squirrel. The moonlight was gone, and there was only dim candlelight around. Ted and Ben were pinning my arms and legs down, while Heather was staring in horror at me.
I stopped struggling. In a few moments, I managed to stop shaking. “W-what happened?”
“You were hissing and biting her, man,” Ben said, wide-eyed. “Like you were an animal.”
I glanced at both of them. Heather looked a bit ruffled, but thankfully no bites seemed to have pierced her. I wasn’t sure what to say. “There was this person. He was trying to attack me. He was going for my throat.”
“Jeff, come on,” Ted said, nervously. “You’re creeping us out.”
I finally got on my raccoon feet and put my hands together. I rubbed my claws against the hairs on my arms. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay, look,” Ted said, “if we’re going to do something, we have to go back to the woods.”
“Back --?” Ben stared at him. “You mean, back through twenty miles of fog and no lights or electricity, to the superpowered ghost who did this in the first place?”
“It’s either that, or staying here and going stir-crazy with everyone else.”
Ben shook his head.
“I think we should go,” Heather said. “Even if we don’t know everything, we need to try. The question is, how soon we can leave.”
“If we were going to go back, we should have left days ago,” Ben muttered.
“If we leave now,” Heather continued, “they’re going to wonder where we went to. Besides, you heard the woman. They’re getting search parties to look everywhere, and riots popping up everywhere else. We need at least another day, maybe two before things settle down.”
“That’s if they don’t put guards on us, like Goon-face out there,” Ben said.
“His name is Doug,” I said. “He just wants to know where Kim is.”
“Great,” Ben said. “Then maybe he can take us.”
Nobody said anything. “That was a joke,” Ben clarified.
“I don’t know if anyone else was thinking of this,” Ted said, “but what if we got a tiny rubber-band-powered airplane and flew out of the fog?”
We all turned and looked at him. “We’ll probably get a bicycle,” I said.
“Right, right,” Ted said.
“How about this,” Heather suggested. “At some point, we split up, we search the station for anything that can help us, and anyone who’s willing. Tonight, we make a plan. In two days, we leave. Sound good?”
“I still think this is a bad idea...” Ben said, but the thought was interrupted when Mrs Clarence returned with lit candles. And she had company with her.
“Mom!” I cried.
“Jeffrey? Oh, thank God you’re here!” As she got past Clarence, I saw for a brief moment a look of fear on her face. I wondered for a moment -- sometimes when I look in the mirror, I doubt that there is a thinking mind still in that raccoon, and I wondered -- if my brief moment of delirium had driven me closer to going feral; but then I realized it was probably my glowing night eyes. No big deal.
Behind her, Lizzy and Andy walked up, eating ice cream. “Hey Jeff,” Andy said.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked. “And where did you two get ice cream?”
“They’re giving ice cream away to all the kids. You want some?” Lizzy said.
“No, Elizabeth,” Mom said. “That ice cream is just for humans. Sorry,” she turned to me, “your Dad’s still at his job.” Dad worked in a town called Colton, 15 miles away. Mom, fortunately, worked just a few blocks from the station. “I’m sure he’s alright. He’ll be here, as soon as they get this all cleared up.”
“Mom… are they really going to clear it all up?”
She continued without seeming to hear me. “They’re setting up a big camp out in the parking lot, and they’re asking for anyone who can help to chip in. Blankets, clothing, and medical supplies especially. That’s where I’m going to be for now. But my biggest concern is that you are safe.”
“What about Dad?”
“They’re sending a search party out to Colton,” she said. "It’s going to be dangerous out there. There’ve already been shootings. I don’t want you going outside under any circumstances. There are a lot of crazy people outside.”
“I want to help out, Mom.”
She kissed me. “You do more than enough just staying here, sweetie.” In the dim light, I saw her licking the fur off her mouth. “I hope you enjoyed the pool party.”
“Wait, so who’s going out on search parties?” Ted spoke up.
“Your mom is leading one,” Ted’s dad said. "She knows what she’s doing. Don’t get into any trouble for her. Leave the worrying to me.”
“What about Heather’s folks?”
“My parents should be fine,” Heather said, “they know how to take care of themselves. It’s my best friends I’m worried about. Melanie Reynard, Audry Clarkson, Misty Jacobs. If you hear anything about them...”
“Actually, some of us are taking down names of loved ones and their likely locations,” Ted’s dad said. “Although we’re trying to get everyone’s families together, you kids are our highest priority. If there’s anyone you need us to find, we will.”
“You don’t need to worry about mine,” Ben said. “I saw them in the hallways earlier. I told them to go help out back, that’s what’s most important now.” I looked at him, knowing full well he was lying, but said nothing.
Ted’s dad nodded. “Very well, then. Hopefully this storm doesn’t last too long. I’ll be around the station, helping Tracy and anyone else if they need me.”
“And I was invited to help with the soup kitchen. Liz, Andy, can I trust you two to watch them?”
Mom and Ted’s dad closed the door behind them, leaving the four of us animals with my sister and brother, standing awkwardly in the dim candlelight.
“Does the TV work?” Andy asked.
“No, it won’t,” I said flatly.
“Is there water in here?” Lizzy asked.
“They have bottled water back somewhere, I heard.”
“… I don’t suppose either of you brought any board games?” Ted suggested.
Fortunately we had a deck of cards, so we all settled on game of Go Fish. There were 3 problems, though: first, it was too dark for some of us to make out the cards; second, it was hard for some of us, Heather especially, to look at their cards; and third, none of us were really interested in playing Go Fish. The four of us were still thinking about escape plans -- at least, I assumed we were silently thinking about them -- while Andy got bored and started reading my comics in between playing. Meanwhile, Lizzy started talking about her experience.
“Andy and I were watching a movie, and Mom was listening to a radio. Then suddenly the power goes out. Then a minute later, the radio went dead. Mom went trying to find another station, and then we saw the fog coming in. As soon as it touched the house, it was like everything went silent. Not even the flashlights would work.”
“It was freaky,” Andy said.
“So Mom had us get our stuff together to walk over here. Any 9’s, Jeff?”
“Good to know everyone got their exercise for the weekend. Go fish.”
“So I heard some people say it was a solar flare or something that knocked out all the electricity, and then some updraft or something kicked up the fog.”
“It wasn’t either of those things,” I said. “Remember that hike we went on last week?” I said. “Well, we met this guy… this spirit... ” And so I told her all the details about the spirit and what he said to us. I didn't mention the gradual changes happening to us since then, and I definitely did not mention my black-out episode.
“That’s right…” she said after I finished, “you said something about a nature spirit the first time. I thought you just made up a weird dream.”
Andy had been way more caught up in my story than Lizzy. “So, does he live in a lamp or something, or was it more like an old soda bottle?” Andy asked.
“For the last time, Andy, he wasn’t a genie.”
“I mean, it makes more sense than weird weather patterns,” Lizzy said. “But...”
“The issue is how do we get him to undo this.”
“... Well, what does he want?”
“He wants us to give the land back to him.”
“And what else?”
“... To turn people into animals if they stay here?”
“Lizzy, I told you the story. You know as much as I do.”
“Maybe he needs people to believe in him?”
“Like, if he’s a nature spirit, maybe he needs people to believe in him in order to, like, get stronger.”
“... You think that this fog, and this trick on us, is to amaze people into worshipping him?”
“Well, I think it’s amazing.”
“Superpowered beings don’t need motives,” Ben said. “It’s their rules, their game. We’re just toys to them. If there’s anything I’ve learned from superhero comics...”
“Lizzy,” I said, hoping a different angle would get through. “This spirit is dangerous. He’s already hurt a lot of people, with this fog and these beasts he’s sending out. He isn’t a nice guy. Whatever he is, we can’t give him any more power than he has. We have to fight back.”
She frowned, perhaps not liking to hear this. Andy perked up. “Are we gonna get cool weapons to fight him with? Magic weapons?”
“We’re gonna need magic,” Ted said, “if we have any odds.”
“Maybe we could drop bombs on him from above,” Ben said.
“And how is he making the electricity fail,” Heather said. “Perhaps it’s the fog…”
“If the fog is made of magic,” Ted said, “we could harvest it, distill it, condense it into a giant ball of magic…”
“...And then launch a weaponized ball of magic against our enemies!” Ben concluded.
“None of you are any help,” I said, jumping off the bed.
“Jeff, come on, we’re trying to lighten the mood here,” Heather said.
“I'm going to take a walk. Liz, can you open the door for me?”
Nobody stopped her from opening the door. Several kids stood up as the door opened. The hallway was packed with them, out into the lobby. Doug, the guy who was supposed to be watching us, was nowhere to be seen. Lizzy took me in her arms and held me close. I realized my fur was standing on end.
“It’s just other kids,” Lizzy said.
“I don’t want everyone staring at me.”
She petted me between my ears and set off for the lobby. There were still some kids hanging around, but they were all doing their own thing, talking in groups or staring out the windows. Through the windows, we could barely make out the people setting up camp.
“Say, can we go outside?” I asked.
“Mom said we shouldn’t.”
“That’s what Mom said. What I said was, can we go outside?”
“... I guess?” Lizzy said. She started walking to the door, and the guard looked up at us, stone-faced.
“We’re just going out to see Mom,” I told him. The guard frowned at me, then shrugged and waved us through. Either he trusted us, or he was just too tired to bother.
The parking lot wasn’t the picture of chaos I had imagined. It looked just like a campsite; every two parking lanes had been set up as tents, tarp areas, or cook sites. Officers and volunteers walked anxiously but carefully through the smoky fog, hauling water jugs, propane tanks, cooking supplies, camp lights, ropes, chains, blankets, and food. Lots of food. People were dumping fish sticks and steaks and frozen vegetables into frying pans, cooking everything that must have been stored in the cafeteria’s freezer. The camp was alive with the sounds of hissing propane and crackling meat and bubbling boiled water.
All in all, I realized, the end of the world smelled kind of nice.
“Where are we going?” Lizzy asked.
“Just… let’s walk around. I want to see the whole camp.”
Lizzy walked down one of the empty paths, which we soon realized was empty for a reason. This was apparently a freight lane; a group of people were hauling a trailer towards an empty parking spot, pushing it from behind and pulling it by chains. We ducked into a tarp-covered shelter to watch them park and unload.
“You’ve brought a friend, have you?” said a rough adult voice behind us.
We whirled around to face the man whose tent we had intruded. He might have been middle-aged, but his skin was dark and leathery, covered in moles and liver spots. His jaw seemed sunken into his head, while his eyes twitched around between me, Lizzy, and a vacant spot behind us.
My first thought was something along the lines of, holy crap, I can’t let anyone find out what I was, I gotta act like a normal raccoon. But acting oblivious to the surroundings was not easy when you’re trying to figure out a way we could escape. I must have been a very bad actor, anyways, because he zeroed in on me immediately.
“You!” he glared at me. “You’re one of them! You carry a message from the gods, don’t you?”
“... Message?” I squeaked.
“After 50 years, I knew I would live to either restore the faith, or to see the gods return to restore it themselves! How many more are there? Are they close?”
Lizzy had her arms around me, clutching me for fear of losing me. “Lizzy, run!” I hissed, and quickly we bolted out of the shelter and down the lane. The man shouted at us through the fog -- more like a howl, really -- until we made it back to the lobby doors. We would have made it in, but there was a young boy blocking the way, trying to wave to the guard inside. He turned around and looked at us.
“Oh, hi, pukka.”
“... Carl? What are you doing here?”
“I… I thought you’d be inside.”
“What’s a pukka?” Lizzy asked.
“It’s the name of a spirit that takes the form of an animal to visit humans,” Carl explained.
“It’s nonsense,” I said, “and we need to get inside. There’s a crazy old man chasing after us.”
“You mean…” Carl pointed through the fog at the running man, his leather boots stomping the pavement, his coat streaming behind him. What did he want with us?
“Carl!” the man shouted, his tired face breaking into a smile. “... I see you were right all along, son. Good job.”
Carl turned red and looked at the ground. “Thanks, Dad.”