Chapter 1: Change

On a warm, autumn afternoon, cars rolled by like indifferent machines to their eccentric environment, humans busied themselves with day-to-day activities. The soft yet disruptive churning of a lawn mower hummed as blades swished and grass was cut. Suburbia had never known tranquillity. It was always changing, ever moving, ever progressing.

The peak of the waning sun gently lit like a crescent of golden light above a manmade building the size of a mountain.

The expanse of the only green forest area left was as remote and tiny as ever. In fact, as a year went by, the animals that lived there were pushed back further and further until humans interrupted their lives on a daily basis. There was no escaping them. Trees were cut down like sugar canes, scrubs and bushes were mowed down like they weren't even there. The birds fled as new constructions emerged from the devastated land.

Of course, Verne and his woodland friends had watched the humans with keen interest, and with a little fear before, but now they dreaded them. For they wrought death. Humans were mysterious creatures with enigmatic purposes. They crushed everything with no emotion, taking more and more each and every day. They were consumers. Barbaric and sinless.

Verne, a tortoise that had been living in suburbia all his life was now facing some dramatic decisions. He either had to convince everyone to keep looking at the positive side of life and hope the humans would edge off, to go in deeper into their cold society. He wasn't sure which would prove more dangerous.

The last, still lake of the shrinking miniature woodland rippled as a leave struck its glimmering surface. The lake was the animal's meeting place for making team decisions. The log they once lived and met in before, had got crushed and demolished like much of the woodland.

Ozzie and Heather were by the lake, talking vividly under the dappled glow of the sun pining through the leaves. The possums had been very affected by all the sudden changes. Ozzie in particular was confused as to when to play dead whenever danger was coming. Verne could hear them argue densely.

"But dad," Heather muttered through her fine gritted teeth, "you're not being careful enough!"

"Of course I'm careful!" He sighed, crossing his small arms and shaking his head until his black dotted ears flapped, "Heather, you have to know when to take risks! Playing possum is above all the safest most ingenious thing ever! We have a advantage over everyone else!"

"Not when you're running out in broad daylight to get food and then run back in again!" Heather retorted, rolling her eyes, "its better if you stay low for a while, the humans may leave when it gets colder."

Ozzie opened his mouth to say something, a little nettled to be told what to do by his own daughter. But he was interrupted. Verne emerged from the clearing tentatively, a weak smile on his face.

"Hey guys," he said, attempting a little wave, "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation!"

Heather looked wearily over at him. "My dad just ran out there again today while they were snapping down our favourite tree."

"Who, the humans?"

"Yeah." She looked down over at the lake. "What do we do Verne?" For a long time the animals had ignored the human intrusions until it got too late. Animals are creatures who have to accept change, or die. And so, having already tasted living with humans, they thought it wouldn't be much different when they visited them. But now, Verne knew there was no end to the death toll over their dying home.

"That's what I've been thinking about." Verne answered nervously, "and it's getting worse."

"What is?" Asked Ozzie sadly. He didn't really want to know the answer.

"Well, winter's approaching. We only have fifty-four days left. The only good news is that our food collection for the winter is good."

"How good?"

"Good, good."

"Not all the humans are harmful!" Ozzie said tightly, "I'm old for a possum and not once have a been hurt by one, even after years of being close to them!"

Heather looked at him angrily.

"Ozzie," Verne stated matter-of-factly, "you've only known these humans properly for a year thanks to RJ. If you've forgotten, he introduced us to them in the first place. So thanks to him, we know these humans better."

Heather perked up. "Maybe he might know how to help us then?" She asked timidly, "if he knows them better than we do?"

Verne looked over his shoulder, almost expecting the racoon to come striding out of the bushes. When he looked back at the possums, he only saw fear and desperation masking their faces. Even though they wanted RJ's advice, they were still ultimately looking to Verne to see what he thought was best. And he was proud of that. Having two leaders all the time sure was confusing and stressful.

"Okay, I'll ask him, but in the meantime, no risks, and I want you both to think what we should do before winter hits." He had a horrid fear that they'd hibernate right under the humans' feet, only to be killed in their slumber. He inwardly shivered at the thought.

Our home is being destroyed.

Verne's countenance was twisted in worry. What could they do? He felt that he urgently needed to do something. And he knew he should have planned something a lot sooner.

Stella, the skunk, and also his best friend, jumped out of the bushes, with Tiger following her.

"Good evening, turtle Verne." Tiger announced politely. Even after almost a year of the cat's company, Verne had never got used to Tiger's presence and his flash of claws and teeth.

"I'm a tortoise, Tiger." Verne corrected him flaccidly.

"Sorry." He said, meaning it.

"Where are you going?" Stella looked at him briefly before stepping closer to her mate. Verne had been aghast when the skunk and the cat had declared that they were now close partners. Interbreeding was not his twig to chew on. And if they ever had a chance of producing off spring, they would be sterile.

"To see RJ. You haven't seen him, have you?" The darkness had started to seep into the tiny wild enclosure and Verne was growing tired. He wasn't nocturnal.

"Checked all his favourite spots?" Stella asked shrilly, pruning her long silky tail, which was also her deadly weapon.

"I vhink he may be getting more vood again." Tiger suggested.

"From where?"

Tiger shrugged his shoulders, his ductile fur shaking glamorously under the strengthening moonlight.

Worry was beginning to settle over Verne. Their world was so small now, as it had been cut back by schizophrenic mowers and metal dragons, that it was easy and quick to find any one of his friends.

Stella must have seen the anxiety swirling like a mist in Verne's eyes. "He'll be okay, wherever he is. RJ always knows what he's doing."

Verne nodded reluctantly. The ambient temperature was dimming. Stella and Tiger past him by as they continued with their romantic chit-chat.

Verne stumbled through the thick course weeds and sweet-smelling dandelions. "RJ, where are you?"

Verne needn't have worried.

The sun had finally been defeated by the darkness that clamoured from nowhere and devoured anything in its sight. What RJ truly marvelled at was how the humans managed to keep the yearning darkness at bay. They made lights of their own, like they were gods.

The night was always vast and deep, and the humans lived in a net of their own society, pushing back nature and wildlife as if they weren't a part of it.

The racoon had seldom changed since his arrival prior to a year ago. Despite the knowledge and the experience he had gleaned from his risky adventures, he still dived into danger as if he had learnt nothing.

RJ peered out from the foliage of a large, withering oak tree. Its bark was moulting off as if it were rift with disease and beetles and moths pruned from its aegis as it rotted away. From its staggering branches however, its still provided a brilliant view of the town. The sights were amazing, and only at night. RJ had no need to stare at the sky and count the stars. The humans had made their own stars, and they were by far the most beautiful. The lights were consistently moving, leaving long silvery trails like snails do. Colors of the rainbow bubbled forth in waves. He could watch it all until dawn. But the racoon had other things on his mind.

Claws clutched deeply into the fibrous wood of the oak to make sure he didn't fall, he stuffed a paw into his bag and pulled out a pair of old binoculars. With them strengthening his vision, he saw a pair of humans sitting below him in a concrete garden under a lantern. They were talking readily, their thick, hollow voices reaching his ears. From their smell and their stature, he could tell that they were both females. However, it was not them that had caught his interest. Between them, on a table beside a set of ghostly candles that stretched the eerie shadows was a packet of rare sugar coated almond donuts. The very smell was charging him with electricity of excitement.

Through his time, the racoon had seen so much food go to waste. He knew humans never ate everything that was on their plate. They were the most wasteful creatures he had ever known. So, he was doing them a favour. He was taking what they didn't need. And even then they complained and tried to stop him with their brooms and kitchen knives.

Cautiously, so as not to make too much noise in his concealment of foliage, RJ drew out his fishing rod and aimed it accurately over the empyrean food. The line of his fishing rod had lasted him a long time, but the barbed threads that aligned it with such strength had weakened over so much incessant use.

Claws dug into the wood, holding his breath tightly, he lowered the fishing line down with its clean hook glistening under the frosted moonlight as it descended. The humans were busily talking in the silken air.

"Joe got up this morning, can you believe?" Said the strong female voice to her smaller companion who had yet to mature, "it's the builders. They're keeping everyone up these days!"

"Yes, even I can't sleep. I can't even concentrate to read, ma ma."

"And you'll never believe me, but Ethan's mother has had quite a shock. Her son discovered something weird deep in that forest out back."

"Really? Like what?"

So entranced was RJ, that he did not pay attention to their mundane babble. Animals never had the time to listen. Their lives were short and brisk.

The little hook was cast merrily under the packet. The humans, equally as absorbed into their conversation as he was by the snacks, RJ hauled his prize up and into his waiting arms without difficulty.

"Man, I'm getting good at this."

In triumph, RJ jumped down from the tree and burst through a bush, holding the two donuts he snatched to his downy chest, chuckling in ecstasy. Sometimes he wondered if he nabbed the food for the taste, or for the thrills it brought. However, his shining joy was swept away when he was faced with an angry turtle.

"RJ!" Verne snapped in a blanket of umbrage, "where have you been? I've been looking for you all night and I'm worn out!"

RJ smiled grimly. "Verne, I go where I please! And what could you possibly need me for so bad that you've lost a little nap time, hmm?"

His cocky voice just added to the fire of Verne's ire. "Have you noticed what's happening to this place?"

RJ thought for a moment, wondering if he was being mobbed by a trick question. "Winter's drawing closer? Lemme guess, is it sixty four days left now? Or forty two?"

"It's fifty four! And no, that's what I am here for!"

"The donuts?" RJ innocently tried again, holding the glittery donuts up under the stars. His stomach was roaring in hunger at the smell of them.

"No!" The turtle felt like relinquishing his role of leader so many times. "I just need to talk with you. Follow me."

RJ complied, shoving the heavenly donuts into his mouth like he had been starved. After savouring the taste in his mouth, he trotted up to walk beside his friend. "What is it Verne?" He asked, "you can tell me! I know you're troubled." The splashes of worry in the turtle's eyes were a clear indicator of his friend's mental anguish. "We've known each other for almost a good year now and we're going to have our second winter. I can't wait to see the snow again."

"I hate snow. So I never see snow, because I hate it. Its cold and its wet."

"Well, give me a break, old buddy. There's not much else to do when you're all sleeping en hibernating."

"Yes, that's the problem with racoons, they never stop."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean, one day you're going to get in some serious trouble again. Especially with the humans at our doorstep now."

"They've always been at our doorstep." RJ conveniently reminded him. But he still didn't seem to understand what Verne was getting at.

The turtle, tired and fed up, led him to the lake. The crickets softly sung long, restless tunes that bounced on the wind.

He turned and looked at his friend. A year together wasn't very long, but it was for an animal. Verne looked at it more as two summers and a winter. For a human, that time is worth nothing, but for an animal, that's a quarter of their life.

The lake's pale ochre light played across RJ's countenance and chest. Under the illumination, he looked so much older. "RJ, there's been a lot of changes."

"Err, yeah?"

"Well, have you noticed how closed in we are now? The humans are often only feet away and pretty soon I think this whole little place of ours is going to be gone in a matter of weeks." RJ didn't look fazed. "Doesn't that concern you at all? Have you even noticed?"

"Is that why you're so worried? I thought someone had died, you just looked so pale!" A tight smile was hugging RJ's thin black lips, a single canine jutting out, "well, Verne, don't stress yourself any further! This is normal! Humans need lots of space to park their cars, set up big houses, have large furniture…"

"But this is our home!" Verne visibly paled.

"It happens everywhere, Verne." RJ dropped his egotistical façade, allowing a hue of seriousness to equip his voice. "We either live with them this way, or die."

"That's got to be some other way?"

RJ simply shook his head, his bright sapphire eyes grave and morose. "Sorry, Verne. Just gotta go with the flow." He made sure his cobalt bag was comfortable over his shoulders before heading out into the darkness, leaving the turtle to contemplate. The urgency of the danger surrounding them made him feel claustrophobic.

"RJ, wait!" He ran up to the racoon before he was smothered by the darkness. He saw his soft blue eyes stare with perplexity at him. "Wouldn't it be better if we just moved somewhere safer? Somewhere less conspicuous?"

RJ shook his head, his tail swaying in melody to the soft breeze, "Verne, change happens. Moving isn't going to help. You can't flee from your problems. I couldn't." He looked at the moss and the mushrooms on the soft earth for a second before lifting his deep blue orbs to glance at Verne again. "We can adapt, like before." Verne frowned. "Come on!" RJ spread out his paws in aspiration, "life is easier now that the humans are even closer to us! You won't even need to look for food? Great huh? Why would we wanna travel to a dumb forest for?"

"Is that all you think about?" Verne asked unusually coldly, "food? What about me and the others? And this dying forest? Without the forest, there is no us? Understand?"

"There's no need to get angry. I'm not your problem. I think you're just upset at the world right now."

"What does that mean?" The turtle rested his hands on the hips of his chestnut shaded shell.

"It's change, Verne! Why can't you embrace it?"

Verne looked RJ straight in the eyes, fully confronting him, his shyness left behind back at the lake. "Oh, and I suppose its all right that a few of us get slaughtered then? For change? Yeah, great deal. Lemme guess, did your parents do the same thing to you too?"

RJ's ears pressed down flat against his fuscous skull, furious. For a moment Verne thought he would snap insolently at him. But he didn't. He turned and swiftly stepped into the aegis of the forest shadows that ate the light.

"You're wrong Verne. You simply don't understand what's in a large woodland. Its better here."

"Why, RJ?" But he had already gone.