"I'm HERE!" shouted Hammy excitedly. "Where's Verne huh? Where's RJ at? Over there?"
The girl laughed at him and pointed to the back room. "In there fuzzball."
"Fuzzball?" the squirrel queried. "What's that?"
"It's a cute nickname for fuzzy little balls of energy."
He pondered that a moment. "OH! Like me right?" he grinned.
"Right. They're over there on the windowsill."
Hammy appeared next to Verne in mere seconds. "HI Verne!" he shouted. "Clara said RJ is okay. Is he okay huh?"
"Hi Hammy. Yes he seems to be doing much better. Nothing has been able to stop him from being himself so far."
Hammy peeked over the edge of the crate at his resting friend. Other than a few white bandages cover random place all over his body, he seemed perfectly normal.
"He looks fine to me. Can we take him home?"
"No, no Hammy. He needs to stay here and rest a few days where we can take care of him and give him food and stuff." Clara answered from the other room.
"Food? That's his favorite thing to eat! Can I stay?"
Clara smiled. She couldn't wait to get to know all of these animals better. She poked her head into the room. "Do you want to stay here? I think my dad won't question it this time" Hammy nodded happily. Just then RJ moved and grunted.
"Hey Hamstring. I'd know your smell anywhere. Bring me any twinkies?"
"HI RJ!" Hammy cried. "Clara said I couldn't bring you a snack. She said it's bad for you."
"So.." RJ asked groggily as Clara came into the room, "you are...who now? Clara? I don't really remember... Why are you telling Hammy I can't have a snack?"
"Yes I'm Clara" she said, coming over to him. She gently took his other paw in a hand-paw shake. His grip was surprisingly strong for a drugged raccoon, and he was obviously familiar with the human custom. "And you need decent healthy food if you're going to get better any time soon."
"Thanks. You saved my life, I think. I still hurt, A lot."
"I was just repaying the favor for your friends."
Hammy beamed proudly.
The raccoon suddenly opened his eyes and looked up at Verne. "Verne, is everyone okay? What happened to Farley?"
"I chased Farley off, and he won't be enjoying the tasty treats of neighborhood animals for much longer. My dad will have him taken away. He's dangerous to people too" Clara interrupted.
"And everyone is fine RJ" Verne finally said. "RJ," The sensitive turtle could no longer hold back his relief and anger "don't EVER do that again RJ or I'll kill you myself!" Then he said in a much quieter voice, "And thank you RJ, you saved everyone."
The drugged raccoon grinned. "You would have done the same Verne. But you have that nice shell..I need to get myself one of those...I was gonna send Hammy but I couldn't find him. He's so fast you know. You should SEE him on caffeine, he's hilarious. But man that boy crashes harder than..." he trailed off and started snoring again. His two companions smiled.
"How come you came down, after your father locked everything up."
"I didn't have anything else to do today and there was this squirrel outside our glass door staring at me with the saddest expression I've ever seen" she laughed. "I've really enjoyed meeting all of you. You know I feel like, like I found..."
Verne grinned at her. "Welcome to the family Clara. We're happy to have you, even if you are a human"
"Thanks, I think" she said. "I've never been an honorary part of another family before!"
"It's not honorary, you're just welcome to be a part of it. You save RJ's life and for that we really can't thank you enough."Verne sighed. He hadn't realized how great an impact RJ had had on them until he'd seen him nearly killed. Sure he admitted that he liked him, was even his best friend, but he supposed you never knew how much something meant until it was gone, or almost gone. He looked over at RJ. He never in a million years would have dreamed that he would be sitting there, in a vet's office talking to a human, with the shifty bandit that had first entered their lives only to save his own neck.
The girl turned to her father who had joined her and listened to her one sided conversation. "We really need to talk."
"Before you say anything, thanks a lot for saving him. This guy is..special."
"According to you, they all are"
"Aren't they to you?"
Her father thought for a moment, then came and wrapped his arms around his daughter, watching the raccoon sleep. "Yeah, they are honey. They are. What makes this one so special though?"
"Dad...can I tell you something?" Clara had partially returned that evening because she had decided that it was time she explained to her father how she knew.
"Of course honey."
"I know because, I can hear them. I mean, I can talk to them. They talk to me." Her father stiffened. "I mean it. I"m not making it up and I can prove it to you. But only you. This raccoon, RJ, saved the lives of his family yesterday. These guys.." she motioned to Hammy and Verne who were both now both sitting awkwardly in the crate. "Are his friends. There is a family of porcupines, a skunk and cat and a father and daughter opossum duo. This is Hammy and Verne."
Her father stared at the squirrel and turtle unbelievingly.
"Verne, can you pick up RJ's paw. Hammy, can you jump up there and grab that little bottle and bring it back down here? Do my dad can see that you understand me?"
The two animals complied, shocking the girl's dad. "And what is your skunk friend's name?"
"Stella!" piped Hammy eagerly.
Clara picked up an animal book from her dad's bookshelf. "What animal is Stella?" she asked. Verne pointed to the skunk. Her father had no choice but to believe.
"..saw Farley and drew him off while his family got to safety. He would have made it but...well, they hadn't all gotten past the hedge by the time he got there so he had to well..."
Her father looked at them in disbelief. "I can't believe, I don't understand. I've worked with animals my whole life and you're telling me that they...think...they..feel..?"
"Well yes and no..honestly most animals are just what you think they are and they're not much brighter than they appear. But some..."
Verne looked up at her father. When that he looked closely he could see the warmth in the turtle's face, the simple innocence in Hammy's expression.
"Tell him to get a TV in here" RJ's voice croaked. "If I have to spend time here I need something to entertain me."
Clara laughed. "RJ is awake again. He says he wants a TV if he has to stay here."
Her father looked at him blankly. "He just said that? Since when do raccoons watch.."
"I told you dad, he's very different. I don't think he's eaten a bit of natural food in his life and he knows "Survivor" better than any human I know."
"No accounting for taste I see..." he muttered.
"I watch it all thank you very much!" RJ growled. "It's not taste, it's a way of life." Again Clara translated and her father just shook his head.
"Let's go home Clara. I need to think about this" He took his daughter's hand and turned off the lights. "Tell them...there's food in the bins...and to stay away from refrigerator...there's no food there..."
"they can understand you just fine. It's us that have trouble hearing them."
"Of course" he mumbled.
After they left, Hammy curled up next to RJ. Verne yawned. "We really thought we'd lost you RJ."
"Am I lost?" RJ asked, still too drugged to even be conscious.
"Good. Thanks guys for not letting me, you know, get lost."
"Go back to sleep RJ."
"You keep waking me up."
"Then let's all go to sleep."
Hammy was already breathing heavily, and shortly after Verne and RJ joined him in deep sleep.
A little over a week later the hedge family was gathered one evening, planning a raid. Since RJ had been gone they had not gathered any food at all and they were all excited to have a full fledged feast for their friend should he return soon. At last report he might be able to come home within a day or two, with no guarantees.
Verne recounted his visits fully, ensuring him that their reckless leader was as witty and sly as ever. In his time at the vet's office, RJ had already masterminded three scheme's involving their new human ally. Of course, it mostly consisted of Clara going to the store and buying them things but it was a brilliant plan none the less, Verne explained in RJ's words.
Their plan for that night was so far involved sneaking in to a new house across the street. It was unfamiliar territory but they had scouted the groceries and their pickings would be good. As they tossed idea's back and forth on how to get in the house, Clara slipped noisily through the hedge.
"I really need a better path through there." she said, picked the leaves off of her shirt and pants. "What's up everyone?"
"We're going on a raid!" Hammy jumped up and down with anticipation.
"The green house across the street."
Clara laughed. "Good luck. They have two cats."
"Leave them to me!" Tiger said proudly. "They will be NO problem!"
"I can bring you some snacks you know, if you're just hungry."
"We want to surprise RJ!" Heather smiled up at Clara. The two seemed to be fairly close in age and were getting along very well.
Ozzie added "He'll be amazed when he comes back to find all his favorite stuff waiting for him, courtesy of a carefully executed plan by his devoted family."
"I can still get you snacks. Is there any other way to welcome him back?"
"I know!" said Penny. "The Gomez family just got a hot tub! Maybe we can figure out how to use it. He'd be really proud of us there donchya know?"
"Hot tub?" said Verne doubtfully. "I don't think that's the kind of thing we can.."
"Sure we can. It's easy!"
The group turned and looked behind them
RJ was grinning widely, leaning up against the tree they were all huddled near.
Hammy was the first to react. He seemed to explode with joy and had RJ in a loving hug in a millisecond. "OOoo you're back!" he squealed.
"Careful there Hammy." RJ laughed. "I'm not beyond the point of... OWWW! HAMMY! I said be CAREFUL, that HURTS!"
The squirrel let go and backed up, giving everyone else a turn as they cheered and yelled and cried for joy.
Bucky, Quillo and Spike hugged him as best as they could, hopping up and down. "We're so glad you're home Uncle RJ! We were going to go on a raid for you tonight. But this is so much better!"
Their parents warmly took his hand and thanked him for risking his life for their kids. "You're a real special guy there RJ" said Lou. "Jeepers it's good to see you!" Penny said as she smiled broadly.
"Glad you're back raccoon." Stella said as she hugged him around the neck fiercely.
Tiger bowed to him dramatically. "You are truly a hero. I consider it an honor to be a part of your humble family.
Ozzie took RJ's hand. The raccoon raised an 'eyebrow'. "Thank you, RJ. You saved Heather's life specifically in exchange for yours. I will forever be in your debt. You are..." For once, Ozzie was actually speechless. He hugged RJ gently and moved aside.
Heather came up to him next, head down, blushing fiercely. "I...you...me..." tears began to spill down her face. "It was all my fault!" she cried as she buried her face into his chest.
He put his arms around her. "Heather" he said softly after she stopped crying a bit, pushing her back and looking into he reddened eyes. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat. For you, for anyone. You guys are my family now. Even if things didn't turn out...I wouldn't regret it for a second."
The young opossum smiled, finally feeling the relief that had eluded her for nearly two weeks. She hugged him as tightly as she dared. "Thank you RJ." she sniffed happily. "I'm so glad you're back, that you're okay."
Verne came up beside RJ and clapped his hand on his shoulder. "I'm glad you're back too RJ. Now how about that hot tub? I'm sure you could use a nice hot bath. In fact, I know you could. You reek."
The family collectively sniffed him and immediately slip back away from him. Heather even let go and stepped back. "Dang RJ, you really do stink."
RJ frowned. "Now that's a fine welcome home. Well in that case, Hammy, where are my twinkies? I have a lot of TV to catch up on before we hit the hot tub and...oh, thanks Hammy!" the squirrel had raced off and returned with five twinkies before RJ had even finished his sentence. He carefully walked over to his chair and TV and sat down. He immediately slouched down in relief. "It's goooood to be home." he said, unwrapping a twinkie and turning on the TV as the whole family settled down.
"Didn't like being forced to something good for you huh?" Clara laughed. "I have to say it's going to take awhile for me to get used to seeing a bunch of animals watching TV in the middle of a forest."
"Just a couple of extension cords Clara. You'd be amazed at what we can get."
"Not so much any more." Clara had been chatting with RJ throughout the week whenever he happened to be awake. She had bonded with the raccoon as she had with Heather and was already learning about his curious behavior. "I'm glad you're okay too RJ."
"Me too. Kudos to you for saving my life by the way. Now that you're an official part of the family, maybe you can help us out..."
"I'm not going on raids with you guys. I'll get thrown in jail."
"I know but just think about the things we could do! Tell you what, I'll email you about it.
Clara laughed out loud. "Email? You've got to be kidding me."
"Oh no," Verne confirmed "He's as addicted to the Internet as he is the TV."
"What, can you actually READ or WRITE?"
RJ tilted his head and looked at her. "Since when do you really need to read to surf? And I can write, a little."
"Well..." she said, realizing one really didn't need to be able to read to click on things.
"I have a screen reader" he winked at her, grinning "for those big words I don't know."
The whole family was gathered in their usual TV spots, making room for Clara to sit next to RJ. She watched TV with them until it was dark and her father called for her to come in for bed.
As she left she turned and looked back at her new friends, enjoying a family night of television as any human family would. RJ looked over at her and raised a paw and said "See ya!" The other animals did the same but were too absorbed in the TV to notice the raccoon's confused expression as she left. RJ looked at the place in the hedge where she had disappeared for some time, thinking of what had happened over the past couple of weeks. Verne, noticing, as he wasn't particularly interested in the TV program, cleared his throat. RJ looked over at him curiously.
"Nice girl." Verne said.
"I hope she doesn't get in trouble."
"Well, first off when does anyone associated with you NOT get into trouble and second, well, she can understand us. If someone knew about that they might try to take advantage of her."
"I guess we'll have to keep an eye out then eh?"
"I suppose so. RJ?"
"Are you glad you met her?"
He hesitated. "Yeah. I.."
"SSSSSSShhhhhhhhhh! I can't hear!" Hammy hissed.
RJ smiled. "I'm just glad to be home. And, I can't wait to get in that hot tub"
"Good night Clara" the girl's father said as he began to close her bedroom door.
"What is it?"
"Clara, promise me you'll be careful okay? Don't tell anyone else...you know."
"Only you dad. Did you hear anything about Farley?"
"They said they would take him for a trial week, since he hasn't actually bit a person yet. He might get a second chance after all. Good night."
"I can't say I'm glad. Good night"
A few hours later Clara woke. She got up and wondered down the hall to the bathroom. From the open window she heard voices talking in low tones. She narrowed her eyes and looked out but saw nothing. She put her ear against the window and instantly recognized Hammy's sudden shrill cry ("It's HOT!"). She grinned. They indeed had succeeded in their hot tub venture. She laughed out loud at the idea of a bunch of forest animals hanging out in her neighbors hot tub, getting relaxed and eating twinkies.
"Come on Hammy, it's not that bad!" said Verne who was thoroughly enjoying the steaming water.
Hammy sat stiffly on the edge. RJ reached out and pressed the jet button and bubbles instantly came to life, popping and rolling and...
..becoming generally impossible to resist for the hyper, happy squirrel.
A/N It is finito! Although I have had all sorts of stories for further adventures with Clara in my head, this was the first and her introduction. I hope you enjoyed :) If I get lots of reviews I'll do the others. Otherwise they will just stay in my head :D