The sun was setting over suburbia.
Red, orange and yellow streaks lined the sky and clouds as twilight reached a small area within the neighborhood that had not yet been developed. Behind the enormous hedge that acted as a fence between the two places, the critters that lived there were getting ready for a restful sleep after a long hard day of doing absolutely nothing.
RJ the raccoon was in a tree munching on some Spuddies that he had salvaged from a garbage can. Apparently the human had bought them, then tried them and found that he hadn't liked them. So he'd thrown away the nearly full can, leaving it for the Hedgies to salvage on one of their annual treks through the neighborhood. They didn't really need the food — Hammy had filled the log so well that they all had more than enough nuts to last through the year — but it was mostly the sense of adventure that continually brought them back through that hedge.
RJ figured he was tasting that adventure right now as he downed another couple of Spuddies. He'd offered to share with the rest of the gang, but apparently only he and Hammy liked them (for which RJ was immensely thankful). And talking of Hammy, the little squirrel was running around below him looking anxious. He looked up, saw RJ and scampered up the tree.
RJ offered him a chip and Hammy gulped it down immediately. Then, wiping his face delicately, he burst out, "Have you seen my cookies?"
RJ rolled his eyes. He was expecting this. "Hammy, how many times do we have to go through this? We have plenty of cookies. Don't tell me you've misplaced all of them."
"Well, I have!" Hammy said defensively, climbing up the tree further to look around. "I carry them with me everywhere. So they could be anywhere. And I don't know where anywhere happens to be. So I was wondering if you did —"
RJ sighed. "Look, Hammy, if you want to stop losing them you have to stop carting them everywhere. There is such a thing as loving something too much. If you store your cookies in a safe place then you won't keep having this problem."
Hammy zipped back down to where RJ was sitting and ate another chip. "Okay," he said finally, "I can do that. But I still have to find them —"
"Well," RJ interrupted as he reached into the can for more chips, "you lost the cookies today, right? So just retrace your steps. Go everywhere you went today and you should find them. Do you need me to go with you?"
"No no no no no," Hammy said confidently, "I can remember. In fact, I know just where to start because every morning I go to the lake to —"
"Great," RJ said hurriedly, cutting him off. "You'd better get started then, huh?"
"Uh-huh," Hammy said, and zipped down the tree toward the lake.
RJ watched him go and sighed again. Truth be told, he could have been a little bit more patient with the squirrel. Hammy could be annoying sometimes, it was true, but he was still a very good friend. In fact, all of the Hedgies were. RJ hadn't had many friends before, so he knew how lucky he was.
Smiling slightly, RJ put the lid back on the Spuddies can (it was still half full) and climbed down the tree. He tossed the can into the log and continued walking, hoping to find the rest of the Hedgies. Around this time they were sure to be gathered around the TV watching the latest human reality show. RJ had no idea what people saw in those, but they were apparently the big moneymakers, so the Hedgies watched a lot of them.
As RJ continued walking, a bush next to him began shaking. RJ stopped, and out of the bush popped Verne the turtle, sans shell. "Whoa!" RJ exclaimed, shielding his eyes. Verne was shocked too: stumbling backward, he grabbed some leaves and placed them strategically on his skin. Determinedly looking only at Verne's face, RJ lowered his fingers and said cheerfully, "Hey, Verne, what's up? What happened to —"
"My shell?" Verne growled, still clutching at the leaves. "The porcupine kids stole it again. They're taking turns wearing it and pretending they're warriors with shields. Their parents really shouldn't let them watch karate shows."
"I thought Stella was the one who usually set them straight," RJ said, puzzled. "She's done that before. Just waves her tail at them and they give it back."
"Well, she would," Verne groaned, "but I can't find her right now. She said something about ... what was it called ... prepping?"
"Ah," RJ nodded. "She's getting ready for her date tonight with Tiger. You know, washing up, fixing her fur, looking nice. She seems determined to impress him."
"He's pretty impressed with her already, if you ask me," Verne said, then suddenly started. "Hold on. Did you say washing up?"
"Uh, yeah," RJ replied. "She's down at the lake, isn't she?" A realization suddenly struck RJ. "Wait a minute. That's where —"
At that moment a yell came from somewhere in front of them. Stella's yell. A bird above them squawked angrily and took off, and next moment Hammy came zooming down the path, clutching something in his paws. RJ held out a paw to stop him, and Hammy crashed against it, fell to the ground, and popped right back up again, totally unaffected.
"You shouldn't have done that, Hammy," Verne scolded, still holding the leaves. "You intruded on Stella's privacy."
"Something you'd know all about, I'm sure," RJ muttered, looking at the still shell-less Verne.
"I know, I know," Hammy said, hanging his head. Suddenly he perked up again. "But I FOUND MY COOKIES! They were hidden in some weeds next to the lake!" Hammy grinned insanely and clutched the cookies tight against his chest, hugging them like they were his family.
"That's great, Hammy!" RJ said, putting a paw on his shoulder. "Now you're going to put them in a safe place, right? And stop dragging them everywhere?"
"Um. Yeah," Hammy said, thinking hard. "Hey! I know right where to put them! In the log!" And with that he zoomed off again.
"You don't say," Verne muttered, rolling his eyes. "It took him two weeks to figure that out?"
"Yup," RJ said. "Hey, Verne, listen — I'll see if I can get you your shell back. You just gotta know how to talk to the kids, you know?"
"Really?" Verne said, surprised. "Well, that's awfully kind of you, RJ. Thank you."
"No problem," RJ said, setting off again.
"Arrrgh!" one of the porcupine kids, Quillo, yelled. "I'm a crazy karate warrior! I fight you all!" He bounced toward his two siblings, brandishing a small stick. "I have a sword! Defend yourself!"
"Oh, yeah?" another, Spike, shouted back. "Well I have a shield! Oooh, what now? Swords can't penetrate shields!" It was kind of hard to hear the kid, though, since Verne's shell was so much bigger than he was.
"Well see about that!" the third, Bucky, cried, also brandishing a stick. "Charge!"
"Hey!" came a voice. The kids started and turned, and out from behind a tree bounded RJ, wearing a little paper hat and also carrying a stick. "What's this I hear about a swordfight? Cause if there is one, I want to be a part of it!"
"Yeah!" the kids all shouted, jumping up and down as well.
RJ held his "sword" high. "En garde!"
The two porcupines with swords charged him gleefully. Standing carefully, RJ turned sideways just so ... and Bucky crashed into his tail and fell backward, while Quillo's "sword" clashed against his and caused the kid to also lose his balance. In less than a second, RJ had disarmed his opponents, leaving him free to "fight" Spike, who had the shell. Though he couldn't see, he waddled forward eagerly, also carrying a stick.
But RJ was the one who had the advantage now: Carrying all three of the sticks, he ran forward and lunged for Spike. The two of them dueled for awhile, but then the kid lost his stick as well. RJ now had all four.
"I have all the swords!" RJ shouted, running and standing on a rock. "I am victorious!"
"Yeah!" the kids shouted, cheering even though they had lost. It was fun playing with RJ, even when they didn't win.
"That makes me the winner," RJ said matter-of-factly, looking down at the kids. "And you guys know what the winner gets to do, don't you?"
"Uh ..." the kids thought a moment, but couldn't decide what the answer was. Then Quillo asked, tentatively, "Does the winner get to wear the shield?"
"Precisely!" RJ said, jumping off the rock and striding forward. "The winner gets to wear the shield. It's only fair. Now come on, guys, give it up."
"Awwww ..." the kids sighed, but they didn't resist when RJ lifted the shell off of Spike and put it on himself. RJ walked in front of them like he was a model showing off a new outfit. "Well, kids?" he said. "How's it look?"
"Awesome!" Bucky shouted, and the other two grinned in spite of themselves.
"Thanks, guys," RJ said, and started to head off, but Spike grabbed him and said, "Play again, RJ? Come on, please?"
"No, no, I don't think so, you guys," RJ said dramatically. "I'm very tired; all this fighting can wear a guy out. Besides, this way I get to retire undefeated, what else?"
"Oh, OK," the kids sighed, and RJ disappeared through some leaves. "Hey," he heard Quillo say, "let's go play in that race car we nabbed the other day!"
"Yeah!" all of them shouted. RJ heard them all scamper off and chuckled. It was always ... interesting playing with the kids.