The animal's helicopter smashed through the foliage and landed hard on the forest floor with an earsplitting bang.
Inside, Verne raised his head. "We're — we're alive?" he said in disbelief.
"Yup," said RJ matter-of-factly, "on account of I sprayed the gas tank with this." He held up a fire extinguisher that he had found in the helicopter. "But it's not enough to douse the entire forest fire," he added, tossing the now empty can aside.
"No," Jackson acknowledged, coming to stand by Verne, "but that's what the humans are planning to do."
He pointed out the window, which now was above their heads, and they saw a series of flashing red and blue lights, accompanied by the now-deafening wail of a siren. RJ's ears twitched as he listened, and he heard water being sprayed through the trees as firemen moved through the forest.
RJ sighed with relief. "It's under control." He turned to the rest of the animals and addressed them. "Now all we have to do is get out of here."
"That should be simple enough," said Verne. "The window's shattered, so all we have to do is climb out of it."
"Here," Rob said, as he hoisted himself through the window and reached down a hand toward the others, "I'll help."
"I don't know what kind of things you people were doing here, Mr. Vexon, but I'm pretty sure that most of it was illegal, so you'll have to come with me."
A police officer handcuffed Dr. Vexon's hands behind his back as the doctor fought to escape. "You can't do this," Vexon snarled, "you have no proof!"
"Proof? That's funny," laughed the officer as he spun Vexon around to face him. "You want proof, huh? Well, okay, how about this list of the three hundred or so outlawed chemicals that you were using?" The policeman held up a somewhat charred, but nonetheless intact, clipboard with ten slightly burnt pages of lists. "Most of them are illegal, even in Texas. Very funny indeed, don't you think?"
"I think it's hilarious," said a second officer, coming to join the first. He had a huge pile of lab equipment in his hands. "I've just confiscated more evidence, by the way. This is, what, the fifth time we've been called out here? At least now we know it will be the last." He gestured toward the burning rubble of the laboratory. "Never liked this place anyway."
"And apparently it won't be rebuilt," said the first officer, now escorting Vexon and the other scientists to the police car. "Not with all these nitwits in jail."
"You can't do this!" Vexon exploded again, wrestling with the cuffs around his wrists. "I'm — CEO — of — the — company!"
Behind a couple of trees some distance away, a group of forty or so animals plus one teenage boy looked on with amusement.
"Well, at least we know now that he's out of our hair," said Verne, as he watched Vexon struggle against the cops. "We should probably head home now."
"Yeah," RJ agreed, "we probably should."
Reluctantly RJ tore his gaze away from the police car and turned around. But before he had taken two steps, he heard Vexon suddenly shout, "YOU!"
RJ whirled around. The crazed scientist had broken free of the policeman and was sprinting over to the crowd of animals, his gaze on RJ murderous. "You're their leader — I know you are! It's your fault all of this happened! I'm not going to have ten years of work overturned in one night by a stupid raccoon! Not without a fight!"
RJ backed away hastily, but as he looked behind him he saw there was nowhere to go. Vexon had forced the entire crowd of animals right in front of the burning forest. The firemen had not managed to douse the flames yet, and RJ felt his fur ruffle from the heat. RJ looked back at Vexon — the doctor was still coming — but before he could reach them, a teenage boy stepped in front of him.
"Leave … them … alone," Rob said murderously, and Vexon halted, stunned.
"27-VD?" he said in disbelief. "You're — you're back to normal?"
"My name," the boy growled, as he drew back his fist, "is Rob."
And he punched Vexon in the stomach. The doctor doubled over, wheezing, trying to gain his breath back. Rob spun round and sprinted towards the forest. "Come on!"
There was no other option. Vexon was gaining his breath back, his face red from anger, and began running again, before the police could reach him. The animals followed Rob into the forest, dodging burning logs and trees as they ran. Fire surrounded them in every direction as the trees burned and smoke obscured their view. RJ heard an earsplitting crack overhead and ducked just in time to avoid a burning branch, which fell two inches in front of him. The raccoon dodged it and continued running.
"You can't hide from me!" Vexon shouted from behind them, struggling to keep up. The doctor wrestled furiously with the cuffs around his wrists, trying to free himself, but all he achieved was a few cuts on his arms. He ran on, regardless, after the Hedgies.
"This way!" said Hammy, grabbing RJ's hand and pulling him through a tight space in between two burning trees. RJ felt his cut shoulder brush against the flames and yelled in agony again as pain flared up his arm. He stopped for a moment, clenching his teeth as he covered the wound, then continued running.
Behind them, Vexon finally realized that he wouldn't be able to catch up. With a roar of frustration, the scientist stopped and looked round the clearing. Suddenly a wicked smile spread across his face. There was a burning log in front of him, and Vexon slipped his shoe under it. The doctor gathered his strength and, with a grunt, kicked the log, hurling it through the air — right toward the squadron of animals.
RJ whirled around again; the log was inches above their heads when suddenly a fierce spray of water hit it, hurling it in the other direction. The water doused the log immediately, and it fell to the ground crumbled and charred. The animals looked — and saw Dr. Parker standing behind them with a fire hose, smiling at them.
"Parker!" snarled Vexon, advancing on the other doctor. "You — you — how could you?"
As a response, Parker pulled the cell phone from his belt and gestured toward it, grinning. "Oh, it was very easy," he explained. "All I had to do was flip this thing open and dial three numbers. That's how I did it. And who do you think cured Rob?"
"I'll get you for this!" screamed Vexon, as he wrestled madly with the handcuffs. "You will pay for betraying us!"
"Oh really?" said Parker mildly, raising an eyebrow.
And with that, he turned the hose on again and blasted it towards Vexon. The jet of water hit the doctor in the face and pushed him backward. Vexon screamed in frustration, trying to resist the powerful spray, but to no avail — Parker turned the hose up a few more notches and Vexon was pushed back even farther. Finally the doctor was shoved up against a charred tree, blubbering and snarling, and Parker turned the water off.
"Given up yet?" Rob called, grinning.
Vexon glared at them as he stood up again. "I'll never give up," he growled, walking forward. "They may take me to jail and lock me up, but I will escape. And I will hunt all of you down. And I will kill you."
And he looked down at the animals and smiled evilly, gesturing toward RJ. "And I think I'll start with this little guy…"
"ENOUGH!" Verne exploded, to the surprise of all the animals around him. "How many times must we go through this? LEAVE US ALONE!"
"Oh," RJ said calmly, reaching into his bag for the last time, "he will."
And RJ drew out his boomerang again and hurled it toward Vexon. The doctor ducked, and it sailed over his head. "You think I'd fall for that a second time?" he sneered. "Fat chance."
"Wasn't aiming at you," RJ smiled, though he knew Vexon wouldn't understand him.
Vexon must have got the general gist, however, because he stopped, confused. There was a cracking sound from overhead — and, too late, Vexon looked up in horror to see that the boomerang had broken off a large, burning branch, which was now hurling through the air toward the doctor. The boomerang came back to RJ and he caught it, turning away quickly. He spotted some of the lab wreckage through the trees and called to the animals, "This way! Come on!"
All of them sprinted through the burning trees toward the back of the lab. There was a large crashing sound behind them, and they heard Vexon howling with pain and rage. They also heard the crackle of a policeman's walkie-talkie: "Yeah, we're gonna need a first-aid kit. It's not too serious, just enough to keep this guy off his feet for awhile."
Finally the crowd of animals cleared the forest and found themselves on the lab parking lot, in front of the wreckage. Lying some distance away was the road to the lab, framed by the rising sun. RJ slowed to a walk, panting and rubbing his injured arm.
"Well, that'll certainly keep Vexon out of action," Jackson said happily.
"Yeah, well, with the record he's got he'll probably end up with a lifetime in jail," Rob said.
"A maximum-security one," Parker chimed in.
"Hey —" Rob stopped and looked at Parker. "...Thanks for the help."
"You're welcome," Parker replied, then sighed. "I'm just sorry it took me so long to realize something had to be done." He perked up suddenly and shook Rob's hand. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with the SPCA."
And he sprinted down the road, vanishing into the distance.
The animals looked after him in wonderment. "Wow," said Hammy.
"So," Stella said, coming to stand by RJ, "how are we going to get home?"
"That little car certainly isn't big enough to fit all of us," added Lou. "There's about thirty too many for the thing."
"Look!" said Bucky, pointing.
They looked. Still standing in the parking lot was the van that had captured RJ and Hammy. The front door was open and the keys were dangling from the ignition. The back doors were also open — and there was plenty of room inside.
Rob grinned, and there was a familiar, wolfish tint to his smile. "I'll drive."
"Jeepers, this cut is deep," said Penny as she dabbed at RJ's shoulder with some ointment. RJ winced. Penny set the ointment aside and picked up a small washcloth, tying it around the wound. "There you go, RJ. That should hold."
"Thanks, Penny." RJ slid off his little car seat chair and stood up, stretching. His shoulder felt much better. "I'm going to check on the others."
"They're certainly enjoying themselves," Penny smiled as she put the ointment away.
RJ walked through the forest, breathing deeply. It wasn't just his shoulder — all of him felt much better. He'd gotten a nice, long sleep, had successfully led a raid on the supply of food for the neighborhood party, and was now enjoying the middle of a glorious summer's day. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and each of the Hedgies was having a good time.
All 38 of them.
"En garde!" Bucky said, waving a wooden branch around. "Who's ready to sword fight?"
"I am!" said George the hedgehog, leaping forward and also brandishing a stick.
"Now remember, the winner gets to wear the leaf hat," said Lou, who was acting as the referee. "Okay ... go!"
"Have at thee!" said Quillo, and he began to spar with the others.
RJ smiled and walked on. Ahead of him, Verne was discussing something with Jackson and Willow. Verne's shell was now free of any marks; RJ had seen to that with his electric toothbrush.
"...now remember," RJ heard Verne say, "the agreement was that the thirteen of us would take this end of the forest, and the ... what was it? ... twenty-five of you would take that end."
"Quite right, quite right," agreed Jackson pompously. "Although to be honest I don't see why we have to be split up like that."
"All of us wander around so much that it doesn't really matter who belongs where," Willow chimed in.
"I know," Verne admitted, "but truth be told it makes me feel better when I have something to organize."
RJ laughed and continued walking. Soon he came upon Heather, who was typing on the laptop furiously, her fingers a blur. "Oh, hey, RJ," she said when she saw him. "I was just getting more info on some animal-rights groups."
"She's become quite the little activist, our daughter," said Lilly happily from beside Heather. "I'm so proud of her!" Heather rolled her eyes.
"Indeed," Ozzie agreed. "She's aiming to help critters like the ones we rescued."
"Yeah," said Heather. "I mean, just Google 'animal rights' and you get, like, two million hits. If not more."
"That's great, Heather," said RJ encouragingly. "You're helping a lot of animals."
"Just want to raise awareness, you know?" said Heather.
RJ smiled and began strolling again. There was a rustling sound from beside him, and he turned to see Rob emerging from the hedge, brushing leaves out of his hair. He looked up and smiled. "Hey, RJ."
"Hey," RJ grinned back. "What're you doing here?"
"I told my parents I was going to spend the day with some friends," said Rob, walking with RJ. "And that's the truth, isn't it?"
"Absolutely," RJ agreed as they passed a pond where a few of the Hedgies were swimming. Frank the frog sat on a lily pad, humming contentedly, while above him a bird and an owl tossed a ball back and forth through the air. Rob went to join them, and a few dragonflies buzzed around RJ until he batted at the air and they left. And with that, RJ walked on some more.
"No," he heard Katrina say, "this is a camera. A digital camera. See, you hold the end like this, right? And then you — AGH, no, that's the flash button! My eyes!"
Katrina was attempting to introduce her sister Marissa to the marvels of the technological world. Marissa didn't seem to be picking up on it so successfully — for one thing, she was holding the camera the wrong way. When the pressed the "capture" button, all she got was her own face instead of her sister's. Katrina, meanwhile, had her hands over her eyes as she attempted to recover from the blinding flash.
"Never mind," Katrina said, in a voice of forced calm as she lowered her hands, "let's try it again."
"You know, you could keep recipes on this," said Marissa, as she eyed the camera intently.
RJ heard Katrina sigh exasperatedly as he moved on. In a grove to his left he saw Stella and Tiger. "...so brave, my love," Tiger was saying. "You vere so brave."
"Well, you were, too," Stella purred, gazing into Tiger's eyes lovingly. And RJ did not see or hear any more because he knew this wasn't the kind of moment he should be listening to, and he turned away, covering his ears.
His wanderings eventually took him to another clearing, where he saw, sitting with their backs to him, John and Snowy. RJ knew that he shouldn't be listening to this either, but he couldn't help but hear John say, "...it's been so long ... but I still miss her so much. How could you possibly know what it's like to feel this way?"
"You'd be surprised," Snowy replied, somewhat hesitantly. "I — I'm pretty sure I understand what you're going through."
"Why do you say that?" asked John suspiciously, looking at her.
"Because —" Snowy hesitated again, but knew it was the right time to tell. "Susie — she — she was also my sister." She lowered her head, her eyes brimming. "I thought she ran away, but — now I know the truth."
John looked at her, and a mix of emotions ran across his face — surprise, understanding, sympathy, and — could it be? — love?
Slowly he cupped a paw under Snowy's chin and raised her head. "Snowstar," he began, "can this really work?"
"What do you mean?" asked Snowy steadily.
"Well," John said, and now it was his turn to hesitate, "part of me's always believed that it would be — an insult to Susie's memory to — to love another person. And — you know — you are her sister..."
"If you knew Susie like I did," said Snowstar, as she smiled reluctantly, "I bet you'd agree that she'd be the happiest to know that there was a little more love around."
Slowly John smiled too. "I can't argue with that." Gently he placed a paw around Snowy's shoulders, and the two of them gazed at each other ... happy at last.
RJ smiled and turned away quietly from his hiding place. As he moved away he could hear the sound of deep purring. He grinned, and continued to meander about, pausing occasionally to sniff a flower or enjoy the breeze.
Soon he found himself back at the log. He seemed to be the only one here: all of the other Hedgies were off doing something else, and the spot was quiet. Slowly he sat down in front of the mound of food, plucked the Spuddies can from the pile, and began to munch on a couple of chips. As he munched, he thought. He thought about all that all of them had gone through during the past day; he thought about how far Verne and the others had gone to rescue them; and he thought about all the new members of their family.
RJ tossed the now-empty Spuddies can aside and smacked his lips. He stretched his hands over his head and yawned contentedly. It was very peaceful here, he realized.
And peaceful was unusual...
RJ yelped as a furry red head popped out of the pile of food and grinned at him. "Hammy!" RJ exclaimed.
"Just hiding away my lovely cookies," said the squirrel cheerfully, hugging the plastic bag. It looked none the worse for the journey it had been through, but the cookies inside were still intact — and, presumably, still delicious. "If I bury them way under here —" Hammy said, as he burrowed far into the pile, so that all RJ could see was his tail, "— then I won't be tempted to eat them. Not for a while, at least..."
"Good strategy, little buddy," RJ said, grinning. "I don't want to have to go on a run like that again."
"Well, at least we all made it out okay," said Hammy, coming back out of the pile and hugging RJ. "I'm glad."
"I am too, Hammy," said RJ, rubbing the little squirrel's head.
They stood like that for a moment until Hammy broke the hug. "I did save one of them," he said brightly, holding up a large cookie. "Wanna split it?"
"Sure," RJ smiled.
Hammy broke the cookie in half and handed one part to RJ. "It's chocolate chip! My favorite."
"Mine, too, Hammy," RJ said gratefully. He bit into it and chewed, savoring the flavor. "Wow. Rob was right — his mom really does make the best cookies."
"Yup," agreed Hammy through a mouthful of food. He had crammed the entire half of the cookie into his mouth, and his cheeks swelled as he munched on it. He chewed for awhile, then swallowed hard, and smacked his lips with satisfaction. "De-e-e-e-e-licious."
"This is nice, Hammy," said RJ, as he sat back down on the cool grass in front of the log, "really nice."
"I know," sighed Hammy happily, sitting next to RJ. He rested against the raccoon, and together the two of them watched a few clouds drift lazily through the sky. "We really are lucky to have a family like this."
"I know we are, Hamsquad," said RJ quietly, wrapping a paw around Hammy's shoulders.
"I know we are."
Jeffaplus: Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed this story, for your positive encouragement and helpful critiques. I love you all! Sorry this last chapter took so darn long to write. And oh yeah, since I forgot to put the disclaimer at the beginning of the story, I'll do it here: Over the Hedge and the characters within it are property of DreamWorks, Mr. Fry and Mr. Lewis. No infringement is intended — please don't sue me.
What do you all think ... should there be a sequel?