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1: “The Three Stooges”

With each passing day bringing closer the Summer Equinox, the sun rose earlier and earlier each morning; but if it had any way of knowing it, the sun may have been surprised to discover that it wasn’t the first one up in Peach Creek that first day of summer vacation.

The mischievous little red fox was first of the three to see the sun rising over the jagged eastern horizon formed by peaks and valleys of junkyard trash. He rather found it to be a nuisance, blinding him for a second as he stepped out of the brand-new shadow and into the fresh light; he had an objective to accomplish, and this unexpected obstacle was something he could seriously do without.

But while he was vexed by the instantaneous optical assault, he didn’t much mind the whole “being awake and active well before dawn” thing. He’d much prefer to still be asleep, of course, and he was very much planning on sleeping like a baby as soon as it was socially acceptable to go back to bed. But today was different. Yesterday had been the last day of middle school, which made this officially The First Day of the Rest of His Life. And there was much work to be done. This was going to be the day that he put himself on the path to the promised land. He was sure of it.

He was plenty familiar with busting his ass to get stuff done and get even a little bit more ahead in the world -- or, more accurately, he was familiar with busting someone’s ass to get stuff done, usually those of his friends. But if he were to be rigged to a lie detector, one would find that he honestly thought that being the passive leader of the trio constituted a hard life’s work. After all, it’s not easy being so commandingly cold to your closest confidantes.

But all those times in the past, he had always made the foolhardy decision to focus on short-term gain in the name of instant gratification. But he had been young. He was allowed to make mistakes then. Soon he wouldn’t be so young, and he wouldn’t be afforded so many chances to learn a lesson. And one lesson he had already learned was that he needed to start looking at the big picture. It was already tempting him to cash in immediately when this new scheme inevitably paid off -- he didn’t think he would ever completely outgrow his affinity for jawbreakers, and heaven knows that with the early-morning fatigue he was presently fighting off, he could seriously go for a sugar rush. But he knew that he needed to start building a future that was more than a few hours ahead of him.

In the past, he called his little operations “scams.” He had no regret for using a word that so widely associated with worthlessness, with thievery, with something deceitful and duplicitous and devious and dirty and dastardly and damnable and deplorable and devilish and diabolical and despicable and downright dickish -- quite frankly, the use of that word made him fancy himself a kind of badass, a sort of lovable rogue if he would say so himself. But this current project? A scam? Oh, nonononono. Scams were the province of children. This? This was a plan . And the endgame was to be comfortably and independently rich. All he had to do was execute each individual step perfectly on the first try and often with no prior practice. Simple enough. He thought that this sort of scam -- no, plan -- was perfect, brilliant, and foolproof, and he patted himself on the back for making such a mature decision as setting himself up for long-term success.

He did have other motives for what he was doing in that junkyard that Saturday morning, but he was trying not to think about them. For one thing, the two friends and cronies with whom he had shared so much success and failure were starting to become… unreliable? Was that the right word? All he knew for sure was that this same passage of time that compelled him to put his plan into motion as soon as possible also saw his buds start to lose steam. It was becoming apparent that their hearts weren’t fully in the game anymore… were they ever? Were they just playing along because the three of them were the involuntarily members of the cul-de-sac’s band of misfits, so they just just went with it so they wouldn’t be alone?

That was the other thing: he wasn’t bashful about the fact that he wanted to succeed so people would like him more, so they would like him so much that he wouldn’t have to try socially because everybody would be coming to him. Small-time neighborhood success certainly worked for his brother, whom all the kids in the cul-de-sac loved back in his heyday, in no small part because his enterprises were actually pretty high-caliber -- he managed to whip together things people would genuinely enjoy while keeping expenditures insanely low and profit margins astronomically high. By the time his brother was his age, he had enough money to pay some older high-schoolers to disassemble, transport, and more-or-less reassemble a car in his room, which he wanted to have just for the hell of it. Just for figurative shits and self-impressed giggles. To impress nobody other than himself. And the older kids were more than happy to do the work because they were downright platonically smitten with the guy. His older brother bled charisma and held a business prowess that he himself had always struggled to find, and along with the height thing and the place of his species in greater society, it was one of the chief sources of his deep-seated insecurities as a budding young fox. The legendary older brother, who already had a major head start on him chronologically, left home early to seek his fortune, but since he was trying to find a locale where his business could really thrive -- and where the law would stop breathing down his back -- he kept bouncing around the country: he had been to the Big Apple and the Big Easy, South Beach and the North Shore, the Windy City and the Mile-High City and about half a dozen Queen Cities, and the last anybody had heard, he was headed to Z-Town all the way on the west coast. This made him extremely hard to keep in touch with; if either of the brothers really wanted to, they could probably find some contact information on one another, but both would probably agree that they were busy attending to business.

Oh, and there was also an added bitterness stemming from how he was convinced his brother had stolen an idea from one of his more successful scams, which had involved some very rudimentary summertime sweets made en masse in repurposed refrigerators (granted, the idea originally was the brainchild of that annoying little twerp Jimmy Victim-Complex, but any fox worth his tail wouldn’t allow a stupid bunny to have all the glory). But he was trying to force himself to forgive his brother for his plagiarism and to remain cool-headed so that he could better keep his eye on the prize; this he too believed was a mature decision and he couldn’t wait for someone to realize that and give him glowing praise for it.

He remembered that his brother had never used the words “scam” or “scheme” to describe his craft, but rather some other word that the younger brother thought was too gaudy even for his own taste. Suffice it to say that there was a period where he debated discarding some of his precious stash of magazines, the ones that were emblazoned with an extremely similar word to the one that his brother used, and this association killed any mood the younger brother felt when perusing them; but luckily his family soon after upgraded their internet to broadband, and all the magazines were now relegated to a quirky relic of past times.

“Son of a--!” he began under his breath upon the moment the sun decided to disrespect him, but he decided that finishing his thought would be a waste of energy. Instead, a pressing question for his colleagues: “How hard can it be to find an ironing board in a junkyard!?”

“Well, Eddy,” offered the a slender gray wolf, “in my experience, ironing boards are not typically prone to deteriorate so severely as to justify being disposed of outright.” He likewise shielded his eyes from the star in the morning sky; he knew that his assertion would probably go unheeded but felt compelled to say it anyway. This was a familiar feeling to him, as was being awake in the early hours, because for as long as he could remember he had been torn between two worlds: one that bred him into being a prim and proper young intellectual who did things like wake at dawn on Benjamin Franklin’s recommendation, and one that had no room for such a person and relegated him to the bottom of the totem pole specifically because of his intellect. Many a time he had lamented being surrounded by idiots, and if anybody had bothered to take notice of his gripes, they may have understood that he wasn’t joking.

Was the wolf even more of a narcissist than his fox friend? Perhaps a better question would be whether the wolf had any way to exercise his self-righteousness beyond some passive boasting and bragging. When his friend wanted to prove his greatness, it manifested itself in some grand venture to put himself on top of the world; but he himself had a high self-opinion specifically because of his passivity and obedience to authority. Much in line with the old archetype of the nerd who’s all book-smarts and no street-smarts, it had never even once crossed his mind that this might not be a sustainable life-model to carry into adulthood; everybody else in his life was either similarly oblivious to this fact and therefore couldn’t warn him, or didn’t care to tell him because they assumed that he would have a complete breakdown on the spot, his entire life crashing down around him in real time, the poor naive wolf-boy crying and howling in a public setting as he processed the revelation that his modus operandi was functionally obsolete and he was now a soul set adrift on an unfamiliar sea without a compass, and it would just be an awkward situation for everyone involved and everybody would rather avoid it. Or maybe he would just disregard their warning altogether as the opinion of a low-intellect individual. Either one really was a plausible outcome.

None of this was to say that he was without initiative or drive to do his own thing; indeed, when left alone, he was liable to pull a technological undertaking or science experiment out of thin air and make some profound discovery that could make the professionals blush for never having thought of it themselves. But this was when he was very much left to his own, and only his own, devices. In a crowd, he would never be the loudest voice: he would either be in the presence of superiors who he dare not try to give the impression that he was insubordinate, or he would be in the presence of inferiors whose respect he could not garner and who would never listen to a word he would have to say. That’s why the fox found him so valuable: he was bred to be loyal and obedient for a world that would have nothing to do with him, so when he brought the wolf into his personal fold, he knew that he wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, nor would he want to. The wolf wanted to be included, and the fox wanted an industrious lackey who could pull knowledge of the STEM subjects out of his ass on command. So they stuck together all these years, despite the fact that all they had in common was being on the neighborhood’s shitlist and a shared affinity for sphere-shaped sugar. Therefore here was the wolf, collaborating in a scam -- no, plan -- that he had no emotional investment in and furthermore hadn’t bothered to have clarified what they were actually doing, simply because it was the way the winds of his life were blowing his ship at the moment.

And the wolf’s therapist wasn’t helping any of this. Bless his heart, he wasn’t observing the fact that this kid was taking a cripplingly passive role in his own life because he was more focused on solving his general anxiety issues. This was all well and good, but it may have had the unintended side effect of reinforcing the wolf’s pseudo-narcissistic tendencies: “Oh, no, Eddward, if you were really severely phobic of germs, you wouldn’t be running through the junkyard with your friends, or you would wrap your tail in plastic wrap! If you were really severely OCD, you wouldn’t be able to wear that -- what is it, a ski cap? -- you wouldn’t be able to wear that if it weren’t perfectly symmetrical on your head. You’re already doing better than you think you are, Eddward.” Many people respond to praise by using it as motivation to keep getting better, but some revel in it to the point of addiction and wind up stagnating if not getting worse; the poor doc had no idea that his subject Eddward would prove to be the second one.

Eddward . The idea of unpacking all the impact that that name had on his life was already on his mental shortlist of topics for college-application essays for when the time for those came. He was strictly Eddward to authority and Double-D to peers and there was nobody who belonged to both camps. His names highlighted the dichotomy of the two worlds he inhabited. They also spoke to the subtle strangeness of an otherwise traditional name: that extra D . It was a family name from his mother’s side, and it betrayed that his forebears had not always been the classiest bunch, so to speak. Despite his usually endless vocabulary, the only word that he could think of to describe his maternal roots would be trashy . The genesis of the Eddward title had begun with an illiterate ancestor and just kept spilling onto newer generations; in the last generation, it was bestowed upon Double-D’s uncle Ward, but by the time that Sammantha Woodland had gone to college, gotten into an excellent line of work, married the equally-successful Vincent Lupo and tried her best to wash her hands of her small-town Virginia upbringing, Gran’Ma and Gran’Pa Woodland decided that their eldest son was too much of a loser (“even by their standards!” Double-D might remark to himself) to ever find a nice lady and have a son to be the next Eddward, and Sammie and Vince found themselves under enormous pressure to name their child Eddward should their child be born of the male persuasion. The pup was indeed a boy, and luckily for Gran’Ma and Gran’Pa, Sammie and Vince were too busy with their jobs as always to ever sit down and brainstorm a better name. The little wolf also got tagged with another family name -- one of those unisex-but-usually-female names that seems to be seen on males disproportionately in rural America -- for his middle name, but ever since he shared the factoid with his friends and they never completely stopped mocking him for it, he knew better than to let it slip again.

The thought had occurred to him that maybe he was being unfair to the culture that his mom had come from; perhaps his mother’s side of the family was riddled with embarrassing stereotypes of American Southerners, but they didn’t consist entirely bad and ignorant people, and he’d met plenty of other kind and smart people who just incidentally had distinct drawls -- after all, he had always lived right about where the South began, so he was bound to meet such trend-buckers eventually. But dammit, he just couldn’t disassociate all of the negative qualities one associates with a blue-collar caricature from the specific individuals to whom he was related, nor from the life he was afraid he would have had if things had been different. This knowledge that he could almost have been like that was the reason he was unapologetically proud of his intellect: he was convinced that he nearly wouldn’t have had it. Maybe the people who thought warning him that his overly-studious lifestyle needed some variety and entropy would fall on deaf ears were correct. Not to mention that his uncle Ward, easily the least-pleasant of his mother’s kin, was also the family member he saw the most often since he had also made his way to the same metropolitan area in Southern Delaware to see if someone there would be desperate enough to hire him. With an object of comparison like that a quick drive away for one’s whole life, perhaps anybody would have turned out as haughty and overeducated and unwittingly condescending and unconsciously biased against rural-dwelling people across the country and around the entire world as Double-D did. But he was still a good soul; he just didn’t know he was bound for a personal crisis if he ever fully embraced adolescence and started wanting to make bad decisions.

Eddy and Double-D scavenged for an ironing board because it was the only thing they needed that they couldn’t get elsewhere for free but also didn’t feel comfortable buying from a store; that is to say, Eddy didn’t feel comfortable buying certain things, and the others weren’t comfortable with questioning him in the middle of one of his strokes of self-described genius. The electric generators he had nabbed from his dad’s work and the extension cords were courtesy of his unknowing parents; the sheets of plastic and laminate he would have rather not bought online so as not to leave a virtual paper trail, but he couldn’t find out where else to acquire them, and he thought that as long as he didn’t also buy an ironing board, the Law could never definitively put the pieces together, so he had the plastic and laminate sent to Double-D’s house since that guy’s parents would invariably be away from home and therefore could not intercept the package. If he could just find a damn ironing board in this literal wasteland, everything would fall into place. The only other thing they would need was gasoline for the generators, but Eddy had that covered. He just sent Ed to find some.

The last one to see the sun that morning was the hulking brown bear standing in the shadow of a trash-mound even taller than himself as he siphoned fuel from the latest abandoned car he had come across. Ed didn’t much mind the brief taste of gasoline in his mouth as he sucked to get the siphon working, nor did he mind that Eddy was exploiting the old joke that bears would consume any old thing besides healthy foodstuffs, but Ed didn’t much mind a lot of things. Really, there wasn’t much that he disliked besides the opposite of things he did like. He didn’t like not being able to watch monster movies or read comic books or eat jawbreakers. He didn’t like people not being nice to him or his little sister, and he didn’t like when his little sister wasn’t nice to him, and he didn’t like disappointing his friends and family. He did have dislikes that weren’t just opposites of his likes, but they were typical things like school and broccoli and grapefruit and being impaled on the heel of your foot with a pebble. All those who knew him would probably agree that Ed was not complex. Some people felt bad for him for this reason, thinking that a simpleton like him would just breeze through life and never be able to make anything of himself, if for no other reason because they thought he lacked the wherewithal to apply himself in the first place. But Ed was happier than they were, and he was happiest almost swallowing the gasoline he was harvesting because he knew that he was helping his two favorite people in the whole wide world. In that moment, nobody could take that away from him.

And as he did with Double-D, Eddy appreciated Ed’s loyalty as well. But he was convinced that the clock was ticking on how long they’d be in business together, so he wanted to get his big, grown-up idea rolling while he still had a crew to operate with. But first he needed a goddamn ironing board.

“Really?” he griped, “Nobody in the history of this town’s ever thrown away an ironing board? Or did somebody else clean this place out already?”

“‘Clean’ is hardly a word I would ever use while speaking of this place, Eddy.” Double-D might have been able to see what Eddy was building up to if he had known about the plastic sheets and laminates, but all he knew about them was that Eddy insisted upon using the Lupo house as the shipping address for a mysterious package. Eddy had been using the school computers to track the shipment on the weekdays when he couldn’t be there himself (and to prevent confusion after he had accidentally opened a box without checking the return address and discovered it was just an industrial-sized order of sticky notes intended for Mr. and Mrs. Lupo, after which Eddy half-heartedly helped Double-D forge a “Package opened by mistake. Love, the Post Office” note), and when the mysterious package finally arrived, Eddy had ran home from school, snagged the package off the doorstep and hid it away where neither Double-D nor anybody else would find it. Double-D -- who imagined that he surely would have run out of breath if he bothered trying to keep up -- had debated trying to send Ed after Eddy to get the package first, just to send Eddy a message that he couldn’t have something sent to his house and still keep it a secret from him; if the package had had any of the Lupo’s names on it instead of Eddy’s, and there was therefore any chance that someone in his family could be implicated if stupid Eddy had somehow bought contraband on the internet and had it sent to the Lupo house, or if in any way it wasn’t guaranteed that they would have the standard several hours before his parents got home to erase any evidence of the package like maybe a “Your package was delivered!” note stuck in the mailbox or something that his parents could find, then he would have made certain that Ed got there first. But he thought better of it, thinking that Ed had been the crew’s workhorse for long enough and deserved a break, and that whatever kick Eddy was getting out of saving this for a big reveal was something he must have needed for self-esteem purposes. Not that Double-D thought Eddy needed any more self-esteem, but he felt like it was the right thing to let him have a meaningless little victory so he could feel better about himself. There was that passive narcissism again.

Ed would very much have liked to have seen the contents of the package, and it wasn’t far back in the past when Ed would have went ahead and got the package first with or without Double-D’s insistence, ripping it open there on the front lawn for the whole world to see and probably moderately to severely damaging whatever was inside. But he knew that Eddy would smack him if he did that. Eddy would have smacked him for that in the olden days, too, but it seemed that at a certain point, around the time that Eddy seemed to him to get even smaller than before, that Eddy started smacking him even harder. It wasn’t even that it physically hurt him; he just didn’t like making Eddy so angry. It made him feel bad to make him feel bad.

Ed kept on making unpleasant gurgley sounds as he siphoned gas out of the next car he saw, and Eddy and Double-D kept strolling aimlessly through the junkyard hoping they’d happen upon the treasure they sought. Double-D emotionally prepared himself for Eddy loudly cursing in frustration while Eddy frustratedly cursed quietly about the sunrise messing with the lighting of the scene around him: everything was either shrouded in darkness or bathed in a weird orangey haze. He was kind of afraid that there could be an ironing board right in front of him and he wouldn’t even recognize it because his eyes were discombobulated -- or whatever a fitting big word would be; he’d ask Double-D but he didn’t care that much. Double-D decided to take his mind off of Eddy’s impending outburst by thinking of other things that could serve the purpose of an ironing board, while Eddy tried to ignore the tricks of the light by pondering why anybody else would want to ransack the junkyard of all of its ironing boards.

“Hm,” he muttered under his breath, “Double-D, remind me as a back-up plan to buy a bunch of ironing boards and sell them to hospitals as, like, those bed-tray-table thingies. If we need to. Which we won’t. But if we need to.”

“Enlighten me, Eddy: what exactly are the scandalous details behind this sca--”

Plan , Sock-Head, plan .”

“... explain to me please why we can’t just buy an ironing board? We’re not young children anymore, Eddy; we may not be wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have some capital to work with. Or at least those of us who save our allowances do.”

Eddy just scoffed. “All’ll be revealed in its due time, Double-D.”

Double-D made sure that Eddy wasn’t looking before he rolled his eyes.

Ed’s eyes, meanwhile, were focused, and he was arguably putting more effort into his current task than Eddy was. He was scanning for any cars he may have missed from which he could procure every last drop of gasoline. There was only one vehicle in the lot that was exempt from having its fuel salvaged, and even Ed was smart enough to know not to touch it, although in his mind, the vehicle in question didn’t register as a vehicle anymore.

But there was another object that Ed’s mind did recognize as having been a car in a past life, despite the fact that the little part of it that was visible from under the trash pile looked nothing as it once did. If Edd or Eddy had been around, they would have told Ed to let that car off the hook, but even for a guy his size, his heart was disproportionately larger still, and he wanted to make his friends proud.

He acted slowly so that nothing he could conceive of could go wrong: he put the generators and siphon tubes down gently to the side away from the trajectory he expected the car to take when he yanked it out; he’d grab the car by its exposed rear-end and pull it out and up so that the trash on top of it would slide into the hole it made in the hill; and he eyed a big open spot away from the generators and siphon tube where he could put the car down without crushing anything. By the rules of his mind, it really was a flawless plan.

He grabbed the rear end and slid his hands as far forward into the mountain as he could to get all the leverage he could muster, and he planted his feet under its bumper to pull with his legs. He closed his eyes, braced for resistance, and gave it a yank. Then he heard a pop and saw that the bumper had popped off in his hands.

But no matter! Try and try again, he’d always been told. Focus. Reposition. Grab. Prepare. Yank. Pop! And now he looked down and saw that the old buried sedan’s trunk lid had been ripped out of its hinges. He looked back at the growing hole. Some pieces of trash broke out of their sediment and fell into the trunk and at his feet. There was now very little of the car left to grab to pull it out. Okay, now he was pissed.

He backed up a few steps and screwed up all the nerves in his body. He recalled when he was a young cub taking swimming lessons and they tried to teach him how to dive, not just belly-flop or cannonball but properly dive -- he was gonna do that, except he was going to tweak it and go horizontally instead of vertically. He was not going to let that crushed-up old beater make a fool out of Ed.

It was the sound of the crashing and crunching that finally broke Double-D’s apprehension and Eddy’s grumbling.

“What the hell was that?”

“Oh, dear! Ed!”

Finding the source of the cacophony was no struggle at all, as it helpfully grew louder and more ominous. The two boys zigzagged through the maze of debris and detritus; fortunately, all the hours spent here gave them a mental map of the place not unlike the ones they had of their own homes.

“Ed, are you alright!? Have you been injured!?”

“Ed, don’t hurt yourself, you’re no good to me dead!”

It was a bit curious how they managed to find him without actually seeing him; they knew they had their man when they saw a huge cavity in the side of the trash heap, about big enough for a teenage grizzly between his third and fourth growth spurts, and producing a racket of scraping and scratching and mammalian seething that told a heavily illustrated story without a single word. The only thing that they could see in the hole was what they vaguely recognized to be a carelessly-compacted compact car. That and some trash that was starting to fill the hole as it tumbled down the hillside.

“Ed, what in God’s name are you doing!?” shrieked the friend who had a long history of shrieking.

“I’m just digging up the car so we can get gas, guys! Don’t worry, I’m almost done!”

Perhaps the other two were stupefied by their friend’s blind determination, or maybe their brains weren’t firing on all cylinders due to the early-morning fatigue. But in any case, they were both painfully oblivious to the fact that the trash precipitating from atop the mountain was starting to rain down harder.

Thunk .

“Double-D?” Eddy would usually be ecstatic at the prospect of having to look down to see the wolf’s face for once, but he couldn’t get much joy out of his power trip when his friend wasn’t conscious enough to meet his gaze. The last thing he thought before the avalanche came down upon him was whether he recognized the old gadget was that had thwomped Double-D on the head; despite his impressive vinyl record collection; he was not familiar with the look of an 8-track player.

***

Double-D half-sat on the bumper of the old van, rubbing his head, grateful that the impact hadn’t brushed his hat off for Eddy to see; yes, Eddy as well as Ed had seen the scene before, several times in fact, but while he stopped being embarrassed by such moments, he had started feeling annoyed instead, and that was still a feeling that he’d rather not feel. He felt light-headed, but his feeling of cogency was slowly returning to him. He kept feeling around the edge of his hat to see if there were any residue to suggest he were bleeding under there; he knew very well that he could just take the blasted thing off and ask Eddy if it looked like he needed to go to the hospital, but he really just would rather not. Death before dishonor, if you will.

“Hurry up, Lumpy, you’re wasting our head-start!” Eddy hollered at the bear who was cheerfully fishing for and retrieving the generators that had been lost in the great avalanche; Ed usually wouldn’t be happy about making Eddy angry, but he was too happy about his friends being alright after being buried alive to let any negative emotions kill the joy. And besides, without causing the avalanche, they would never have discovered the ratty old ironing board, sliced open and oozing cotton and foam left and right, that had been right in the base of the mountain. But when it was discovered, Eddy had been in no mood for celebration, thinking that the serendipity was really the least the universe could do for him right about now, and didn’t even say a word when Ed presented it.

Ed waded out of the spill zone carrying another generator, which he carefully bestowed at Eddy’s feet. “That’s the last of ‘em, Eddy!” he bellowed.

“Hm, let’s see. One, two, three, six, five, eight…” Eddy counted off and ended with a perky snap of his fingers. “The gang’s all here! Alright, now we can finally start making some headway!”

“Oh, is the grand reveal finally upon us?” quipped Double-D; he would have liked to make a more elaborate display of sarcasm, but he just wasn’t feeling it at the moment.

“You wanna know what we’re doing so bad? Fine. Step aside, Moondog.”

Double-D rolled his eyes again, this time in plain sight, as he stood up from the van’s bumper, though that display of incredulity might not have been a good idea with the condition his head was in, as it was enough to make him dreadfully dizzy when he rose. But as always, the dutiful living tower was right there to grab him and hold him up.

“I’m here for you, Double-D!”

“Thank you, Ed.” He need not say more.

Eddy stepped up to the rear doors to the bed of the van, and positioned himself in such a way that corroborated Double-D’s theory that this was going to be played off as a grand gesture.

“Gentlemen… Ed … answer me this: what was yesterday?”

Double-D was slightly taken aback by the obtuseness of the question.

“Th-- it was the last day of school, Eddy.”

Which school?”

Double-D couldn’t hide his face of disbelief, while Ed hung on every word of their exchange, itching to know where this was all going.

“We… graduated from middle school, Eddy. Middle school, Eddy, if you didn’t know, is also known as ‘junior high,’ and is one echelon of the public-schooling system in the United States. It typically includes students from grades six through eight, although some districts do elect to also serve fifth-grade pupils, while others are restricted to seventh- and eighth-grade youths.”

Eddy was so bored by Double-D’s answer that he almost forgot to respond.

“Yeah, well, uh… Yeah! What comes after middle school, genius?”

“We would be entering the ninth grade, which in our school district would be sanctioned at Forest High Schoo--”

High school! Now that’s what I’m talkin ’ about! And starting high school means…?”

“It means--”

I’M A BIG KID NOW! ” boomed Ed, proud of himself for being able to contribute to the call-and-response game they were playing.

“Attaboy, Ed!” Eddy picked up, “And what do big kids like? Wait! Before you bore us all to tears with an answer, Sock-Head, let me give you a hint…”

The door was opened ever so slightly so that Eddy could squeeze in and the others couldn’t see much of anything inside. He came back to the door holding the extension cords.

“So we have some power cords,” he said as he dropped them on the ground, “a power supply… and courtesy of our lovable ol’ pal Ed causing a man-made natural disaster--” (Double-D again rolled his eyes at such an abomination of language; rolling his eyes was proving to be most of his day’s exercise) “--an ironing board. Oh! But what are we missing?” Eddy disappeared back into the van and returned with the large package that had arrived at the Lupo residence a few weeks back, and which he had been waiting for an equal number of weeks to open. He used one of his claws to slice it between the gaps of the box-flaps, and gently opened it for his friends’ viewing pleasure. “Lo and behold.”

Double-D leaned over, and Ed leaned over on top of him, and they saw the reams of laminate sheets, each one making the next more opaque, but just enough light got through to the bottom to show at least one rectangle of thin plastic, close enough to the top to suggest that there were many more beneath it.

“We’re making fake IDs, boys.”

Silence.

“Cool!” remarked Ed.

Silence.

“Are you out of your incapacitated mind!? We’re out on summer vacation for, what, fifteen hours, and you already want to become a professional criminal!?”

Shhh! ” urged Eddy, “Do ya want the whole country to hear ya?”

“Perhaps I do, Eddy; maybe if I had a populace of hundreds of millions on my side, you would feel compelled to abandon this-- this felonious folly!”

“Chill out, will ya? I say…” Eddy counted on his fingers for a quick second, “...four--! No… five words to you, and you bite my freaking head off! Hows-about you hear me out for once?”

“Fine,” Double-D crossed his arms indignantly, “humor me, Eddy.”

“So. Double-D. Old buddy, old pal. All any of the three of us have ever wanted in the cul-de-sac is to fit in. Feel accepted. Be adored .”

Double-D raised a finger and opened his mouth as he began to protest, but Eddy reached up and snapped his snout shut.

“No, shh-shh-shh-shh-shh! Don’t say a word yet. Eddy’s talking. So. High school. It’s a lot of things. But most importantly, it’s two things: a place for a fresh start, and the place where you become an adult . At Forest, there won’t just be people from Peach Creek; there’ll be kids from Lemon Brook. And Apple River, and Cherry Stream! We don’t have to be the kids we always have been. We can reinvent ourselves! We can be people who people want to be around ! And when an entire building is full of kids becoming adults, who are they going to want to be around more than the people who can help them trade in their juice boxes…”

He gestured very deliberately toward the box.

“...for adult beverages? We can be popular, make money, and it can set us up for life. So with all that on the table… whaddaya say?”

A self-assured smirk locked eyes with a death-glare.

“Oh, is it my turn to speak?”

“Go tell it on the mountain, Lupo.”

“Well, then, ignoring the fact that you completely misappropriated the original usage of that idiom, I must remark that a life of crime is not simply undesirable, but also infamously unsustainable--”

“You know what, Double-D? Aren’t you in therapy right about now? For all of those little anxieties that hold you back in life? Wouldn’t the old doc be so proud to see that you finally let go of all your cares and started doing something fun and daring for once in your life?”

“Oh, you will not use my psychiatric problems and progress against me! I say--”

“Actually, come to think of it, wasn’t this all your idea in the first place?” Eddy’s grin was consuming him and slightly hindering his ability to speak and annunciate. “That one time that we found a camera, and without even having to say it to one another -- we were on the same wavelength, it was beautiful -- without even having to say ‘How can we use this to make money?’ you come up with ‘Hm! We can make ID cards!’ and I never told you this, Double-D, but if I didn’t think there was more money in the calendar market, I would have fallen head-over- heels for an idea like that! You see, Sock-Head? This idea is yours ! It took a few years to come out of the oven, but it’s nice and toasty and all ready to go! You were the leader of this operation for once! Aren’t you proud of yourself, Double-Dipshit?”

A smirk and a glare.

“Silence,” pronounced Ed.

Except Ed, who was sleepy and had recently received blunt-force trauma to the head and other parts of his body, was giving Eddy a run for his money in terms of having trouble annunciating. What he meant to say was:

Sirens! ” Double-D couldn’t help but exclaim. “Eddy, you fool, the authorities know that you’ve roped us in to a highly illegal ring of activities! This is conspiracy to make fraudulent facsimiles of government documents!” His sentence structure was uncharacteristically not of the highest possible caliber; Eddy didn’t care to notice, but Ed could hardly bear to watch his friend go through what was clearly the deepest fear he’d ever experienced in his life. “No! No! I’ve worked too hard to maintain a perfect record -- I can’t surrender that now! Oh dear God, my life is over!”

“Oh, hush, will you? We haven’t done anything yet. Besides, there’s no way that they could have heard me say that just now,” Eddy insisted. But then he thought about it. “Unless…”

Double-D was shaken out of his stupor by Eddy grabbing his chest and trying to rip his shirt off.

“Are you seriously wearing a wire? Did your uncle put you up to this!”

Double-D found the breath to gasp. “You know my family does not associate with that man!”

“Bullshit! Everybody knows that wolves stick to their packs!”

“Eddy, that is a harmful, antiquated stereotype! And furthermore, nobody in my family maintains more than passing contact with him! We don’t even know if he has the authority to do such things as you suggest! I don’t even know if we’re in his jurisdiction!”

Ed, who couldn’t keep watching his friends go to pieces, looked to the sky to get away from it. But he couldn’t escape it. “Eddy, look! Helicopters!”

They brought air units!? ” Double-D remarked as the trio observed a couple of choppers looming over the woods beyond the creek. Now Eddy was starting to believe the hype.

“Okay, then, Sock-Head,” Eddy spit out, “Logically -- be the smart guy here for a second -- if you aren’t wearing a wire, then how would they know we’re here?”

Without missing a beat, Double-D had his logical explanation ready to go: “My educated guess is that someone reported loud noises coming from the junkyard when the mound of waste fell and now they’ve come to investigate the cause of the ruckus!”

Eddy’s eyes were stuck all the way open; the sun didn’t make him squint anymore. “Okay, boys, well, uhm… While I’m totally sure that they’re not coming for us, I, uh… wait, are they coming over here or not?”

Looking at the helicopters again, they seemed to just be encircling the forest. But then again, the forest wasn’t that far away. Eddy was simply confused by this situation, and he wanted out.

“Let’s uh, let’s appease our friend Goodie-Two-Shoes over here and, uh, let’s lay low for awhile. As practice, yeah! In case, God forbid, someday we do get into trouble with the law! Let's play pretend, boys. While we’re still young. May I recommend the trusty old van? We haven’t hung out in her for awhi--”

Ed didn’t see any need to let that Eddy finish that sentence. He grabbed the little fox and the medium-sized wolf and piled his large self into the back of the van with them.

“Wait! Ed, the evidence! Get the goods!”

Ed slumped back out and wrangled up all of the generators and spools of wire and the ironing board and shoved them all into the van, and squeezed himself in right behind it. But in his haste, he forgot something in a box that, to be fair, was a color that very much blended in with the sand-dirty ground.

“Close the doors!” cried a voice, and thus began the waiting until the coast was clear.

“Heh. I’m hungry.” Ed had a penchant for acting as though stressful situations had not just happened, nor were happening concurrent to the present. It was a gift, really.

“Of course you are,” said the wolf, who could barely think of eating. “Do we still have that cache of snacks in the glove compartment?”

“Eh, I’ll look, but keep an eye on the windows and tell me if I have to get down,” Eddy crawled over the seats to the front of the vehicle, deciding that taking the chance of being seen through the windshield would put him in less jeopardy than being stuck in a confined space with a hungry, growing grizzly bear. “By the way, as long as we’re in here, we might as well get to work. Um… did anybody remember to bring an iron?”

Outside, sirens. Inside, silence.

 

Chapter Text

2 “If on a summer’s night a traveler”

One of the last things you’re certain you remember is checking your watch; a small part of you did indeed want to know what time it was, but you were mostly trying to take your mind off your father grumbling about how long the valet was taking.

It is 11:43 p.m. You have been awake for over eighteen consecutive hours, and you are exhausted. You would have preferred that your father chose a different night to go to the theatre, but you know that when your father makes room in his schedule for you, that that is the only time he’s willing and able to share with you, and to dispute this would be asking to be removed from his timetable altogether. Besides, you are still grateful that you’re only a short drive from the big city, where you can witness such fine displays of live performance in person, and grateful that you were born to parents who were well-off enough to take you and cultured enough to want to -- even if your father did occasionally indulge in cathartic behaviors below his dignity, but you ignore him by checking your watch as he embarrasses himself with public profanity.

The vehicle is delivered to your feet and the valet exits the driver’s door. He wears a tired smile, one of someone who either believes or wants to believe that faking a positive attitude will eventually beget genuine happiness. He nods at your father and tries to win him over with a warm, soft smile.

“You didn’t turn the engine off?” your father asks. “Is that your way of telling us to hurry up and get the hell out of here? Or are you just trying to waste my gas?”

“It’s for your convenience, sir. Why turn the engine off and give you the keys when you’d just put them right back in and start her up again?”

“It’s a car, buddy, not a woman. I paid you upfront, correct?”

“Yessir,” the valet responds with a flourish that ends with a hand extended just a bit, palm to the sky. Perhaps he’s asking for a tip, or maybe it’s just the gesture people make when they mean to say of course.

“Very well, then.” Your father scoots right past him and takes his place at the driver’s seat and closes the door. The valet takes his leave without looking at any of you, so you don’t get to see whether the smile is still on his face. Your mother has already walked to the opposite side of the SUV and taken her seat in the time it took for your father to make his point. “Get in the car, son,” he chides.

You open the rear driver’s side door and clamber in, trying to be quick about it so you can pose a question before your father drives off. “Sir, I’m really tired. Is it okay if I take a nap in the back seat?”

“You are in the back seat.”

“He means the third row,” your mother interjects.

“What, do you want to lay down? We’ll be home in half an hour.”

“The highway’s under construction,” your mother reminds him. She also seems tired, but not quite fatigued.

Your father makes some gestures of his own to make clear to everybody his newfound frustration. “Of course. How could I forget? We’re paying for it!” He makes eye contact at you via the rear-view mirror. “Do what you want. But if I tell you to sit up straight and put your seatbelt on, you’d better do it.”

You nod and climb back into the back row, jolted a bit as the SUV jerks forward, but if anything it helps you get over the ridge. You recline in the back seat and close your eyes. You think about the splendid performance you just witnessed, but after a few minutes it strikes you as painfully ironic that you had to fight through such a strong wave of fatigue during the show, and now you couldn’t sleep when you wanted to because the thoughts of the show were just too entertaining. You instead try to think of all the ways that you’ll enjoy the rest of your newly-inaugurated summer vacation, and before too long you are lulled off to sleep by the peaceful thoughts. The last thing you overhear through your closed eyes is more grumbling from your father, something about how much he detests taking surface streets out of the city, but he wouldn’t be caught dead paying to drive on a toll road. That’s the last thing that you’re certain wasn’t a dream.

***

You think you’re aroused from your nap by the cool summer night’s air breezing in through the open windows. You didn’t remember whether they were open when you left the parking lot. But before you even fully open your eyes, you know that they’re open now, with the unmistakable sound of the breeze not having any competition from your silent parents, the extinguished radio, and the absence of the engines of other cars on the road. The only tires you can hear strumming along the asphalt are your own, and you see no lights out the windows. This strikes you as odd, but you’re not yet ready to investigate. You first consult your watch again.

If you did check your watch, you checked it at 12:02 a.m. It is now officially Saturday morning, and therefore the first calendar date of summer vacation. This realization stirs you, so you certainly won’t be getting back to sleep. You think about how you’re going to make this summer count, because you weren’t sure what the future would bring. Today -- yesterday, now, rather -- was the last day of school for the year for all the public elementary and middle schools in the suburbs; that much you knew for certain. But if your parents had anything to say about it, you would not start Lemon Brook Middle School in the fall. You would be part of the first class of sixth-graders to attend the newly-expanded Sherwood Forest College Preparatory School. Once again, you were conflicted. You were grateful to have such an opportunity to better your long-term future, you were a bit hesitant to gamble your short-term happiness. You already didn’t care for having to wake up at 5:30 each weekday morning for before-school piano lessons and leadership classes, but you weren’t certain if you were being immature for wanting a carefree childhood at the expense of your adulthood. But you didn’t want to wrestle with this much longer, so you sat up a bit in your seat and tried to get a feel for where exactly your father was driving.

In three directions, all that could be seen out the windows was darkness. Looking toward the front of the car, your parents are both staring straight ahead through the windshield. Your mother seems almost as enthralled by the strange environment as you are; your father just looks annoyed. He doesn’t see you sit up in your seat; he has a bad habit of never checking his rear-view mirror if he doesn’t have a pressing reason to do so. You don’t tell either of them that you’re awake now because you doubt that they’ll find that information to be useful or interesting.

The headlights do little better at interpreting the world around you; they show the road ahead and not much else. You do note that your father is turning the steering wheel every so often. Perhaps the motion jostled you awake? Where would he be driving that’s so winding?

The highway’s under construction, you recall your mother saying. And you faintly remember Sir bitching and moaning about surface streets being a lesser evil than a toll road. Could he have…? No, he would never allow himself… would he? He’d think it beneath his dignity!

Sherwood Forest Road meanders through the eponymous wildwood that separated Nottingham, Delaware from its northern and northwestern suburbs. The quintessential Road Less Traveled, almost everybody in the Delmarva Peninsula knows it as a great shortcut to circumvent the oft-congested northbound highways, but few ever exercise that ability, as its reputation of being an underserved thoroughfare is a secondary product of its primary label of a dangerous piece of pavement.

You’ve lost count of all the reasons why people say Sherwood Forest Road is not a safe one to travel. Some have cynical rationales about it being a place where teenagers drive like jackasses to impress one another, or where swerving drunkards think they can avoid the cops patrolling the major highways. Others have grounded, mundane explanations, saying its curviness makes it prone to accidents, or its lack of streetlights making it a difficult drive even in the daytime when the trees form a canopy of shadow, or even its sheer isolation making it a bad place to have any sort of breakdown. But you personally were always fascinated by the ones who said that unsavory types prowled these wicked woods.

The stories don’t quite go back as far as you can remember, but you do know the first time you heard them dated back closer to the beginning of your short life so far. They say that on this road, you need not fear being victimized by inner-city gangbangers or methed-out rednecks, nor the mafia nor some bored psychopaths, nor some cryptozoological creature or any such entities. The tales are always specific about a finite number of recurring characters -- usually two, sometimes three, infrequently as many as five -- preying on passerby in cars that are a little too opulent for their tastes. What exactly their M.O. is remains a mystery, but different versions of the story insist on filling in the blank in different ways. They’re madmen living off the grid. Or they’re militant anarchists. Or they’re cultists in need of supplies. Or maybe some combination of the above. Some even say it’s a grand scheme to give back to the poor of the city.

The part of all of this that worries you the most as you sit in the backseat of a luxury SUV that would seem ripe for the picking, is that the mythos of all of this checks out on its own logic. Whether one believed the story or not, one could not deny that every base was covered. The purported modern-day highwaymen only started their operations when the first Mayor Norman resigned to accept an elected seat in Congress and, through the dark magic of big-city politics, his unfathomably less-popular brother ascended to the former’s position and held a firm grasp on the city ever since, all the while gaining a reputation of cozying up with the rich at the expense of the city’s lower-class (and of the middle-class, for that matter); whoever these people were wandering the woods must have thought that tormenting the rich would be the best way to give John Norman the middle finger by proxy. And if that were the case, Sherwood Forest Road would be an excellent place to set up shop. The Delaware D.o.T. doesn’t want to give up on the road that lost much of its traffic thanks to a whirlwind of rumors adding up over the decades, so despite its near-abandonment, the road is far from neglected -- in fact, some say that the road is taken care of far too much per its volume of traffic carried, and cite this as another piece of evidence of corruption on the part of the John Norman mayorship. The strange product of all of this is that the road is used disproportionately by the upper class, who largely do not buy the stories of vigilantes nor any of the other rumors. To the wealthy, this road is a quaint, peaceful alternative to the highway, a smooth and well-maintained thoroughfare through the wilderness, one that they can cruise slowly while they take in nature, arriving late to their jobs where they’re too powerful to be reprimanded, assuming they don’t own the company altogether. Most others either heed the myriad of reasons not to take Sherwood Forest Road or simply think it’s too remote or impractical to use regardless, though many overlap into both camps. The road is by no means exclusively frequented by the rich, but if somebody wants to go car-watching for something fancy, it would not be a bad idea to pull over on this road and set up a canvas chair, watching the oddly-high number of widely-unaffordable cars go by, driven by people who would not hesitate to call the rumors of class-conscious highwaymen -- to put it politely -- “poppycock.”

Your parents are among that set. You’ve asked them before about whether they think the legends are real, and they’ve always told you that they’re just that: legends. They cited the young age of the stories as proof that it must be something spread by children barely older than the legends themselves, and believed only by the same adults who are too gullible to really get ahead in life. Besides, if there have been outlaws lingering in the woods down the street from your house for the better part of a decade now, wouldn’t they have been caught? How long can somebody really hide in plain sight this modern world? Oh, they’re just that good? Your parents don’t buy it. This world now has radio and forensics and the internet for Christ’s sakes; nobody can escape the powers of technology for that long. Oh, so they’re soo good that they’ve also been doing things other than highway robbery concurrent to all of this and haven’t been caught doing those things either because they’re escape artists and masters of disguise? Well like what? What other acts have they done, son? What have they done? Give me specific examples, son. What have these shitstains done? What? Stop being so stupid, son; it’s unbecoming of you. This is all another reason you keep quiet as you squirm in the back seat.

As you look out the open window, your eyes adjusting to the scarce ambient moonlight seeping through the trees to finally be able to make out leaves and branches, you think about the one base-covering detail of the story that you never knew whether you believed or not. It concerned the fact that there were no high-profile cases of robbery if they’ve happened so consistently over the years. The explanation posits that it boils down to embarrassment: either the embarrassment of law enforcement for not being able to find these guys over the course of multiple years, and-or the embarrassment of the rich people who don’t want to publicly admit that they’d been taken advantage of by what was supposed to be a fictional band of misfits. You’re certain that if that happened to your dad, he would be as publicly angry as he’d ever been. Surely he would raise holy hell to high heaven, demanding justice for somebody of his stature. But then again, you can totally see such image-obsessed people not unlike your parents not wanting to reveal anything that might even slightly make their lives seem less than perfect, especially if it comes at the hands of a living legend. Social stigma has a funny way of working like that.

So you lay back down in the third-row bench seats, trying not to make a noise, because while you’re sure that your parents will want nothing to do with you at this hour, you don’t want to take the chance that they might, and that your quivering voice will betray the burgeoning sense of horror that is growing within your heart. Or would it be a burgeoning sense of terror? Oh, such verbal confusion would be a second thing your father would ridicule you for, exploding feverishly from the driver’s seat as your mother plays the part of the disinterested referee.

Would it be even worse than what the bandits would do to you?

You close your eyes. You don’t expect sleep to come. But you need to try.

You imagine things that give you comfort. You’re at home. You’re lying in your own bed. The room is as dark as it can be, but you can still perceive everything by the light of the moon, which sits patiently outside your window, keeping guard. Four walls around you swear to protect you from anybody who may wish to intrude, and the ceiling is too prideful to let your world crash down upon you. The only sound you can hear is your own breathing, the rustling of air hitting the surfaces right below your nose. The only thing you can feel are the blanket and bedsheets that sandwich your body. The only thing you can think is of what wonderful dreams you’ve had in that bed before, and what amazing sights you will see in all the nights coming forward. Nothing here can hurt you.

“Oh, Jesus, what are these bums doing in the road?”

Well that certainly gets your attention.

“Mark, slow down, they don’t look like bums, they’re too well-dressed.”

You start to sit up, but you restrain yourself just a bit, lest the sound of fur swishing against the vinyl seats gives away your wakefulness.

“Did I ask for your opinion?”

You peek gently over the seats in front of you and out the windshield. You’ve found yourself on one of the few straight stretches along Sherwood Forest Road, running parallel to a small river to your left.

“Sometimes you need what you didn’t ask for.”

Ahead, you can vaguely see that the river hangs a right and goes under the road, disappearing in the darkness beyond.

“Give me one good reason to pull over.”

And right at the other end of the bridge appears to be a figure, right where the cone of light from the SUV surrenders to the darkness. But it’s only one figure.

“If they were actually bums, they’d probably be passed out drunk somewhere at this hour.”

You’re several feet behind your parents, so your eyes are running on delay of what they’re seeing, but as you draw closer you can start to better make the figure out. You can see what your parents were talking about now: there are two people standing on the road’s shoulder. But one is much smaller than the other, and both are dressed rather garishly, and you realize that at first the smaller one in front blended in with the one behind him. The larger one is holding up two large objects.

“That’s not a good answer.”

One of the objects is now clearly a gas can. The other just looks like a sort of box.

“Tell Steven you did some charity work and he can probably get you a tax write-off.”

Is the other thing just a suitcase? Why would he be carrying a suitcase? But of course you could ask why are either of these creatures doing anything in that spot at this time of night, but your mind is not exactly operating at peak productivity at the moment.

“I refuse to believe that’ll work, but -- apparently -- you have a vested interest in me giving these people what they want. Whatever it is they want.”

The larger one is waving his occupied arms. The smaller one seems to be waving a cane, but he’s facing off toward the woods.

“You wouldn’t tip the valet. Time to make up for your karma.”

The smaller one -- a pig, maybe? -- is wearing sunglasses. Why would he be wearing sunglasses at night? Oh. Oh. That explains the cane. And the direction he’s facing. You can never let your father know how long it took you to piece that together. He’s be ashamed.

“Wait, is that one guy in front blind or something?”

Then again, maybe he’s just be projecting his own embarrassment. The character up front is certainly a pig, although a strangely-shaped one, and the one in the back is some sort of brown bear. You better understand your parents’ confusion: their clothes convey the fashion sense of a beggar but the spending power of a baron. On the hand, the pig has a straw hat that clashes with his smart outfit and the bear in the back is sporting one of those tacky moustache-and-wig combos that fell out of style with the elite decades ago, but on the other hand, the both of them seem to be wearing white gloves. You realize you really are close when you can make out even these fine details.

“If you’re not going to pull over, at least slow down at let me talk to them from inside the car.”

Something goes off in your brain and you start actually feeling glad that you’re drawing closer -- with every passing millisecond your father has less and less of an opportunity to stop the car at a reasonable distance, and eventually that chance will be zero percent, and then these strange figures will literally and figuratively be in your past.

“No, no, I’m not gonna do that…” your father grumbles. “...Is he still asleep?”

Your heart jumps at this, and you drop back down onto the bench seat, out of their line of sight. You even close your eyes, just for good measure. In a moment of silence, you can feel your mother turning her head around to look at you, and you wonder if she can just sort of sense that you’re awake with the magical, superhero-like Mom-powers that in your youth you genuinely believed she had.

“Yeah.”

Your mother is fallible after all, but so is your father’s sense of judgment. You can feel the car lose speed and sway right, and it gives a little as the brakes are applied. The sound of tires on the road changes to the distinct baritone squeal of a car on a small concrete bridge, and this soon gives way to the melody of rubber running over rumble strips at the edge of the driving surface.

“If he was awake, then we’d keep driving because he’d probably freak out and think they were the Forest Bandits or… whatever the hell.” You curse that this is the one time your father listens to your mother. “I’m doing this for you. And your conscious.”

“Thank you. You’ll probably feel better about yourself after this, too.”

The tire rub slows to nothing, and you lurch a little on the seat as the car loses all of its momentum.

“You stay here.”

“I can take care of myself, Mark. I know where to aim if things get bad.”

Seatbelts click and slurp themselves back into their holders. Two consecutive sounds of car doors opening, and then two consecutive sounds of car doors being shut, with some faint rustling of bodies in between. A set of footsteps on gravel on one side, and a set of footsteps on asphalt on the other. You’re alone in the vehicle. The only thing you didn’t hear was the doors being locked.

“How’s it going?” Your father’s voice is the first of many things you hear through the open windows. You wish that the voice’s proximity would give you comfort, but knowing that it only draws the entities nearer, you also wish it was coming from farther away.

“Oh, Reginald, have some good samaritans finally stopped to help us in our plight?” The first of the two unfamiliar voices has a couple of strange elements to it, and while neither of the elements alone would be enough to amplify your fear, the two strange details combined simply confuse you. It seems that the existence of such a voice in nature would be somehow incongruous, and this only adds to your confusion in discerning whether or not this is all a dream.

The first thing you note is that this entity clearly speaks with a British accent -- but what would a Brit be doing in this part of the country? Nottingham, Delaware might be metropolitan, but it isn’t quite cosmopolitan, and it would never have struck you that an Anglo expatriate would choose to come here; surely the name being shared with a medium-large city in England wouldn’t have been enough of a reason for any Englishman to decide to relocate here when New York and Philadelphia and Washington were a short jaunt away. But a few instantaneous moments later, your brain also registers that this voice almost sounds… inauthentic. In the passing nanoseconds, you arrive at the deduction that this voice -- whether this is the case or not -- certainly sounds like a man with a lower voice trying to put on a higher voice. This could all have been wrong, of course, and maybe his natural voice just did have a timbre to it that seemed to resonate high after coming from a low place, but the peculiar scratchy, breathiness to it was like no voice you’d heard recently. Which of the figures could have been the bearer of this voice? It couldn’t have been the bear, trying to sound less threatening, could it have been?

“Why, I do believe that they may be, Mister G.” Oh, no. No, no, no, that was the bear’s voice this time. If the vocabulary didn’t give it away, the auditory quality of the voice sure did. It wasn’t the most aggressive voice in the world, but it certainly wouldn’t have come from a pig. Jeez, if all dads yell at their kids, you would hate to be this guy’s son. But there is a bit of calmness that the voice gives you, in that it sounds much more real. This character either wasn’t putting on (or couldn’t put on) a fake voice. This one is distinctly American, and you think you detect hints of the slightest of Southern twangs.

“We can be if you don’t give me any reason to regret this,” your father asserts himself. “If I start to get the feeling that you’re going to screw us over in any capacity, I’m--” A moment of pensive thought to get the right words out. “I’m not going to spoil what I have in mind.” You cannot decide if your father’s decision to outright tell them that he has a hand he’s waiting to show them is brave or foolish, but you think a better expenditure of your thoughts would be trying to figure out what defense mechanism he was referring to. If he’s hiding a weapon somewhere in the car, it would certainly be news to you.

“Oh, you’ll have to forgive my husband,” your mother interjects, refusing to take a back seat in this affair, “He has a little too much of a healthy distrust of strangers.”

Some polite laughter that must be from the two new faces is followed by a bit of a monologue from the pig: “Oh, it’s quite understandable, madam; I’d not be certain I’d trust some fellows like ourselves either, stumbling along the roadside in the dead of night. But I assure you, we pose no threat to you nor your well-being; there is little we would gain from it. I can swear an oath on my family name that my intentions are noble -- or at least as noble as one’s can be when one finds oneself a beggar in a moment of desperation.”

“And what family name would that be?”

“Glutton, sir. Glenjamin Glutton.” A brief moment of near-silence with come faint rustling suggests your father hesitantly accepted a handshake.

“Mark,” your father spits, and then, “von Bartonschmeer.”

“A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Gretchen,” your mother adds.

“Miz Gretchen, how dearly I wish my eyes could help me confirm it, but you do sound like a lovely lady.” This confirms to you that the blind pig is the Englishman; but as you start to get more of a sample size of this man’s speaking habits, you start to consider that perhaps his accent is not as strong as you previously thought, certainly still distinguishable but also fading in and out just a slight bit, as though he’d been in the States for awhile and started to pick up some of the local verbal traits. “And this is the gentleman who I once called my servant but now struggle to call anything but a friend.”

“Reginald Chutney, but you can call me Reggie. Nice to meet ya.”

“Chutney? What, are you from India?”

An awkward silence. You imagine your mother rolling her eyes, the pig looking confused, the bear looking down upon your father with a face that clearly is trying its hardest to remain classy, and your father not feeling an ounce of shame. If anything, the outburst may have been specifically designed to take his and everybody else’s minds off of his shame for not having a servant of his own.

“Oh, you know how it goes, similar etymologies,” the pig clarifies, not sounding the least bit thrown-off by your father’s comment. “Surely someone as educated as yourself may recall how all but the most far-Eastern languages of the Eurasian continent derived from the original Proto-Indo-European. Or at least… Reginald did note that you drive a vehicle of someone quite well-read. Did you say your surname was van or von Bartonschmeer?”

“Von,” your father sounds like he’s boasting. “In Germany, you’re not even allowed to have the von in your last name unless you can prove you’re from a noble lineage.”

“My thoughts exactly! Tell me, was my friend’s assessment correct?”

“Oh, absolutely,” your father brags. “The von Bartonschmeer line is top-of-the-line.”

“I beg your pardon,” your mother chimes in, “but how can we be of help to you two?” You’re surprised your father hasn’t asked this before just this moment.

“Gretch, mellow out, they’re curious about the family history.” You know that your mother will not protest this, as she knows as well as you do that your father loves having his ego stroked.

“Oh, and I do apologize for being inefficient with the time you’ve been gracious enough to share with me, but I must concede I find your lineage fascinating.”

“Yeah, well, you must be pretty well-off yourself with duds like those. I wouldn’t have stopped if I thought you were just some more bums crawling out of the woods, drunk off your rockers.”

“Oh, do you like my outfit? I thank you. Without the aid of vision, I still feel assured that you are similarly dressed to kill.” -- Dressed to kill? Do Brits even say that? -- “I suppose it is in our great fortune that Reginald and myself did run into a couple of similar status; after all, us wealthy folk need to stick together, these days especially! It seems that everybody wants to hold us responsible for their problems nowadays.”

“Heh, you got that right,” your father quips. “Hell, come to think of it -- I don’t remember if it’s this road or somewhere else -- but I know the kids these days -- and, you know, the lazy adults who don’t bother giving it critical thought -- they say that there’s place around here somewhere where some lowlifes go robbing rich people who pass through, and that they have been for years but somehow nobody’s caught them yet, and they even say that they, like, give all their spoils to poor people, as if they’d know what to do with it.”

“Huh. Is that so?” the pig sounds like it’s his turn to feign politeness.

“Oh, you know how every place needs its own local legend. But -- heh -- if I wanted to walk into a trap, get my ass robbed and have my money wasted on poor people who won’t help themselves, I -- heh -- I’d just vote Democrat! Heh, you with me?”

Ah.” He sounds like he would give your father an unimpressed look if he were able to make eye contact with him. “Well, I’ve always been of the opinion that those most fit to do so could become comfortably wealthy no matter what policies the administration may implement.”

You think you hear a faint muttering from your father, as if he’s trying to say “oh.”

“But variety is the spice of life, as they say,” the pig remarks, trying to fill the bitter silence, but it’s no match for the crunching of gravel as your father is surely shifting awkwardly in place, trying and failing to contain his own embarrassment. You can just about feel him blush. But this pig proves himself to be merciful to your father and offers him a way out: “But tell me, Baron von Bartonschmeer, from whence have you made your fortune? My curiosity is piqued!” Honestly, it almost sounds like the pig is embarrassed that he embarrassed your father. But would such a character feel such a way?

“Oh, I, um, I’m a high-ranking executive in a company founded by my great-grandfather. Bioengineering and chemicals and such.” And just like that, your father sounds like he’s brimming with vanity all over again. Just a slight compliment and he’s already put past this moment of being put in his place. You think that it must be frightening to be like him, and you’re terrified by the idea that perhaps it’s your destiny that you one day will be.

“Ah, a man of science, I see! Not too dissimilar from the path I’ve chosen.”

“And what would that be, Mister Uh-er… um…”

“He already toldja, his name’s Glenjamin Glutton,” the bear interrupts with an air of annoyance so commonly associated with his kind.

“Oh, Reginald, you need not be so defensive of my honour,” -- you swear you can hear the pig use the letter u in honour -- “It is, after all, an admittedly unusual name. But to answer your question, Baron, I deal in optical aids. Glasses and contact lenses and all that.”

You share in the stunned silence. Are you certain that this quasi-posh English accent was coming from the blind guy?

“Really?” your mother can’t help but ask. At the very least, she confirms your skepticism is valid. You wonder what she’s been doing this whole time. You imagine she’s been trying to politely look at whichever of the two chatterboxes was talking at a given moment, maybe occasionally glancing at the bear to grant him the dignity your father wouldn’t give him, before eventually getting bored and looking at the ground and the woods, switching gazes in irregular intervals so as to seem like a real person but not switching so regularly as to seem mechanical. Your mother may be much less harsh than your father, but she’s no doubt at least as self-conscious of how others view her.

“And how does that work?” asks your father.

“Oh, I could tell a grand tale about how every little thing fell perfectly in place. But that would be a story for another time. Let me say at least this much: ever since I was very young and I found out that other people could see, I was enthralled by the idea. That these people all around me had an extra sense that gave them another way to take in the world. And I will confess: for a time, for a long time, I was bitter. I wanted what they had. I didn’t just want to see -- I wanted to be normal. But then two things went off in my head at about the same time soon after my adolescence. Firstly, that there was little that they could do that I could not do. Perhaps it was easier for them, but I could still do it. I could still sense the exact dimensions of something; just give me a moment to feel it. I could still understand the distance something was from me; just be quiet so I can hear it. I could still perceive the beauty in the world; just let me have a chance to feel it, or hear it, or taste it, or smell it, or just let me linger by it and take it in with the senses that we all know we have but which they don’t teach in primary school. If anything, over the years I’ve gathered that in some ways this is a blessing, for it has let me see the beauty in the world in ways that you seeing types -- you normal types -- have often overlooked.

“And that’s about the time that I started to pity not only the seeing, but especially the ones who couldn’t see well. Here they were with this gift, and yet they weren’t even permitted to use it in its full functionality? What a cruel world! So I took it upon myself to help assuage the plight of these poor souls. If they wanted to see, I should want to let them see. So I started to do my research, and the rest, I suppose you can say, is history. Yes, I had my hiccoughs along the way -- I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is to find a textbook on optometry written in Braille -- and I did need help on many occasions, and I did benefit from some lucky breaks. But I feel like I’ve used my one life on this Earth to make it a better place than I found it. And yes -- heh -- I did make a pretty penny along the way.”

“You’re a good man, Mister G.” insists the possible Southerner.

“Oh, Reginald, that’s not for you or I to decide; that’s the place of the Lord to judge.”

You can’t get any sense of what your father is doing after hearing this. You can imagine him reacting in a few different and opposite ways. Maybe he’s embarrassed again by this pig’s casual recounting of how he turned an improbable good deed into an improbable good fortune. Maybe he’s genuinely confused why somebody would want to be so helpful to complete strangers who would never and could never personally appreciate him back -- and, by that token, maybe he’s regretting pulling over now. Or maybe he’s fuming that this stranger just went on a self-righteous monologue knowing full well that it’s extremely unlikely that any given stranger he encounters would be brazen enough to punch a blind braggart in the face. All of this is assuming that your father even believed a word of it, which you know you shouldn’t assume. If your father were to ask you if you believed it, you would try your best to decipher what his version of a correct answer would be, and tell that back to him. But you were sold. Then again, he could just have been a really good actor. The production from earlier certainly could have used a talent like him.

It was so moving, in fact, that you temporarily forget your fear that both of these figures are indeed just acting their part.

“I’m so sorry, Mister Glutton, but it’s getting uncomfortably muggy out here,” your mother says. You half-believe that she’s half-sorry. “Is that a gas can I see?”

“Oh, yes, this has been such a riveting bit of banter that I for one have completely forgotten the task at hand! A thousand apologies; ah, er -- Reginald! Why didn’t you warn me that we were wasting these fine people’s time?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt, sir.”

“Oh, Reginald, need I remind you? Always interrupt me if I need to be interrupted; I am but a man. And don’t call me ‘sir’ in front of friends; it makes me feel like such a tyrant.”

“Sure thing, Glenji.”

“Now that’s more like it! Ah, but, um, yes yes yes, the matter of our current predicament. It appears that old Reginald here, silly old bear, he forgot to refill the limousine with petr-- forgot to refill the tank, as it were,” -- you wonder if your father picked up on the fact that the Englishman clearly just switched to more transatlantic vocabulary to dumb it down for him, but you would never say a word to him about it -- “and now we’re walking against traffic to try to garner the attention of someone who might be so kind as to assist us.”

“The limo’s further up the road; we’ve been walking for about a half an hour.”

Farther, Reginald, farther. Yet another reason I wish I had known you as a schoolmate. I could have used the companionship, and you could have used the education!”

There’s a lull in the conversation as the pig and the bear exchange hushed oh, you chuckles that certainly match the narrative that they’re not-quite-equal friends.

“Well as nice as it was to meet you, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to disappoint you, because we don’t have any siphon tubes or anything like that.” Your father seems genuinely conflicted about helping them now, or about whether he even can.

“And, um, with all the due respect, Mister, uh, Reginald, I don’t think we can give the both of you a ride to a gas station. Or… anywhere, for that matter. If you catch my drift...”

“Oh, ma’am, among my people, that’s a compliment, I assure you.” Reginald really doesn’t sound like he’s hiding even an ounce of offense; he still has not given you one iota of doubt about his genuinity. Unfortunately that makes his dynamic with the pig all the more confusing.

“Oh, we’re well aware that the logistics of this dilemma are not the most convenient,” -- something about the pig’s sentence structure there makes you wonder if that’s quite right -- “but we were hoping more along the lines of you folks taking me with the can and meeting me back at the limo with the, er, gasoline, while Reginald can walk back. Heaven knows he could use the exercise.”

“Now that’s something only he can say to me.” Really, the only thing close to a red flag you’re getting from the bear is that he seems far too comfortable in his subservient role. Even this is more of a yellow flag than a red one; you’ve heard of such people before, but have you actually ever met one?

“In fact, we’ll even repay you upfront for your kindness. Reginald, would you please?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” This comes with a sarcastic sneer that sounds more like he’s playing with the concept of subordination, like a smartass in the army might say to piss off his drill sergeant even though both parties know the soldier is using all the right words. Perhaps the one called Reginald has some reservations about his position after all, but he swallows them and tells himself that he’s working for a pretty nice guy and things could be much worse for him. You can’t quite put it into words, but this is the first time he breaks his immersion with you.

“Reggie, what did the man say about using that word?” your father interrogates a little too aggressively; it’s still clearly playful ribbing, but it couldn’t be called a successful delivery of a joke. But before he can feel embarrassed: “Oh, what is that?”

“I ask that you indulge me in partaking some of this fine Grecian wine; I would feel so incomplete if I were not to see you happy before you saw me on my way.”

“Oh, it’s Greek?” Your mother cannot resist. “I’ve heard great things about Greek wine, but I’ve never gotten around to trying it.”

“Well, there was one time when we had dinner in Athens, but the restaurant had a French bottle she really loved, and she couldn’t pass up on one of her favorites.”

“Oh, shush. Besides, you can’t have any, you have to drive.”

“Oh, but one glass surely won’t hurt!” the pig insists. “If I must beg for help, I might as well beg for companionship while I’m at it!”

“Yeah, Gretch, it can’t hurt too much.”

“I only wish we had a table to enjoy it at on this fine summer’s night.”

“I don’t think it’s quite summer yet, Glenji. Calendar-wise.” The bear is correct.

“Ah, Reggie, that’s the smarts I knew you had in you!”

You hear the suitcase the bear carried being set down and glassware clinking as it’s being taken out. You hear a cork pop and the beginning of merrymaking.

“Wait, Mister Glutton, aren’t you going to have some?”

“Who, me? Oh, no. I’ll be the designated driver!”

Three voices laugh at varying degrees of heartiness.

You really aren’t sure this isn’t a dream. You thought your mother would put up more of a fight than this instead of allowing your father to drink with strangers at the side of the road in the dead of night. Is her judgment still maligned from the drinks she had hours ago at the show? Or is her love of wine more severe than you knew? Your father would absolutely be the kind of person to have a glass of alcohol in public, proceed to drive a motor vehicle, and all the while not care what law enforcement might think… but would he be the kind of person who is so easily won over by (admittedly charismatic) strangers? Actually, back up: would he ever have pulled over in the first place? Perhaps your parents just act differently when they don’t think you’re awake and listening; perhaps that takes the form of embracing being a lush and revelling in phony compliments when they think you’re none the wiser.

And these strangers: can these guys be real? Do such people exist? The fear makes you want to stay alert, hanging on every little minute detail you can pick up for any signs of foul play. But the confusion exhausts your mind and makes you want to go back to sleep. Therefore your body forces an inconvenient compromise and you’re just laying there in a sort of coma: your brain is practically overheating from vigilance, but your body is too beat to move a muscle. The only part of your body you can control just a little bit would be your eyelids, which you can manipulate to open or close when you see fit, but which are drifting open and shut on their own accord anyway, and you let them bungee you in and out of a state of rest. Your eyes aren’t helping too much, because all they can see is the fuzziest details of the inside of the SUV as illuminated by the scant light originating from the moon and then reflecting ever so slightly off of not-very-reflective surfaces outside to enter the cabin. You pick up the discussion outside the window, but your brain records it only in fragments as you fade in and out. Fragments such as this:

“So what play were you seeing?”

“Honey, what was it called?”

As You Like It.

“Oh, Shakespeare! Marvellous! I’m sorry, but I need to ask: were they speaking with English accents?”

“Uh… not really, no.”

“Oh, damn them! What lazy actors, making a mockery of the craft! I would be their personal vocal coach if they would let me!”

“But wait, Glenji, didn’t you tell me something-something about how the modern English accent didn’t exist before, like, two-three hundred years ago? I specifically remember you saying that some, I dunno, linguistic experts even said that Shakespeare sounds better with an American accent.”

“Oh, Reginald, don’t give away my people’s deepest, darkest secret!”

“Actually, yeah, I think I remember hearing that somewhere, too.”

“Oh, now the secret’s out!”

“Sorry, Glenji, but you told me to interrupt you.”

“That I did. Yes. But it really is a struggle, being a man of art and a man of history, and being a man of two homelands that I love dearly, when these conflicting worlds that I inhabit don’t always see eye-to-eye.”

It actually does sound like a nice conversation to take part in, but surely your father would never allow it; if anything, you showing up would end the conversation immediately as your embarrassed father shoves you into the car and abandons the two strange gentlemen at the side of the road for fear of facing their judgment. You still can’t decide if you fear your father’s wrath more than you fear the mystery of these strangers. But if he were to be so embarrassed by you, then fuck it, let these people show their true colors and betray him. As long as they leave you and your mom out of it, you could be fine with such a turn of events. As long as you don’t wind up like him.

You find your fear subsiding as time keeps ticking by, and as suspicious as you find it that these people are keeping your parents at the side of your car for no immediately-constructive reason, you can’t reconcile that anxiety with the fact that it seems like it’s been well over an hour and these strangers haven’t done anything yet. As your nerve backs down, the voices outside quieten, and thus ends the first act of the dream.

***

“They just left the doors unlocked?” asks a newly-familiar voice. “Okay, works for me.”

The cabin lights have come on, and the open-door ding is dinging. You turn your head to the right, and despite two rows of seats obscuring your view, you can still make out a very large figure placing somebody in the passenger seat. The carrier is being strangely gentle with their subject. You even hear the zipping and clicking of the seatbelt. “There ya go, nice and snug.” Between the voice and the size, you feel you can reasonably deduce that this is the bear putting one of your parents in the seat.

He walks away from the door without closing it at first, then comes back to shut it. The dinging ceases.

“I know we’re coming back to there, Rob, I just wanted that noise to stop.” You have no idea who this Rob person is, but if they’re doing what you think they’re doing, he has a very fitting name. “You need help with that?” you hear through the open window, and it brings your attention to a faint struggling sound.

Nmgyeh,” gasps a voice that doesn’t seem quite as familiar, but is still not completely alien. The struggling had now ended. “Now I get why pigs are fat; if I had to breathe through a nose like that, I wouldn’t be able to do any cardio exercise, either.” Except he says it more like eitheh; is this a different Brit or the same one? How many could there be in Southern Delaware at once?

“Or here’s a crazy thought: maybe that’s just a genetic thing that some species have?” There’s a shuffle and a faint grunt, as though the bear is picking something off the ground and finding it to be just the faintest of physical burdens. Meanwhile, you don’t dare move a muscle; you hardly dare to breathe lest they hear you through the open windows. “Survival traits from their primitive ancestors and such?”

“Oh, Johnny,” says the Brit playfully, “I can’t imagine what you could be talking about.”

“Well then, I guess you aren’t as smart of a fox as I thought you were.” The voice is similarly layered with friendly vitriol, and it sounds like it’s making his way around the back of the vehicle -- wait, he might be able to see you! But then again, the lights aren’t on right now. But then again, they will be when he opens another door. But then again, he has no reason to look into the back seat. But then again, he had no reason to be so gentle with your parents, either. But then again...

And what was this about a fox? Was this the third voice? And what happened to the pig? Now I get why pigs are fat, if I had to breathe through a nose like that… The fox wouldn’t have, what, shown up out of nowhere and knocked the pig out with his bear friend standing right there, assumed his spot in the dynamic duo, and then made a witty remark about pig noses apropos of nothing, would he have? If not, the next logical option would be…

“Well, I’m not exactly using my education, now am I?” You knew that pig looked unnaturally lumpy. But it didn’t click that such characters would have that level of dedication. That was one hell of a ruse. Whoever made that for him should be employed by the Nottingham Shakespeare Theatre Company; they could seriously use that person’s talents.

You’re so distracted by trying to put the pieces together that you run out of time to decide if you should risk making a noise in order to move yourself to a better hiding spot. The driver’s side door opens and the cabin is bathed with light. You can see just over the ridge of the bench seat in front of you that the bear is putting your father behind the wheel and buckling him up.

“I gotta say,” the bear grunts as he sets your father up, “for a first try, that worked quite well.”

“Oh, I agree wholeheartedly,” says the one called Rob. “It took a little longer than I would have liked, but all’s well that ends well.”

“And props to this guy here for just straight-up telling us that he wouldn’t have stopped if we weren’t rich people. Perfect. Take away any regrets I might have about this right off the bat.” The door shuts and it is dark again. “I can’t believe people like that actually exist.”

You take your chance and slide off the seats and down to the narrow strip of foot-space between the rows. Neither of them notice your shape shifting amid the darkness. You pray you don’t come to regret it, but you somehow feel that it doesn’t matter.

“I told you to believe me: rich people only trust other rich people.” The voices sound more distant and a bit muffled now that you’re on the floor, but you can still make out every syllable and sentence. “They don’t always trust other rich people, because they know themselves well, and they know they’d gladly screw another rich person to get richer. But the only people they would ever trust…”

“...Are filthy goddamn rich. And before I forget: that whole bit about being a blind guy who made eye contacts… Rob, I’m telling ya, you shoulda taken up acting, too.”

“Well something much more important was calling me, now, wouldn’t you agree, Johnny?”

“Yeah, I’d say so!”

“But it really is a shame he won’t remember any of it. He really could do with being taken down a peg. Do you think he even caught the subtle little jabs I threw at him?”

“Oh, well like you said, it doesn’t matter now. I kind of feel bad for the lady, though.”

“I’m mostly with you on that; she definitely seems like she’s trapped in a loveless marriage to some arsehole, but then again… it’s not our parents’ time. She could divorce him if she wanted.” A gasp. “Oh, but what if she couldn’t!? This man may be more evil than we could ever know, Little John!”

Did the Brit just call the American Little John? The American was the bear, right? And you’re certain there’s only two people here, right? You’re confused again. You just want to wake up.

“Hey, Robin, should we head out before... I dunno... before too long?” The Brit’s full name is Robin? Not Robert, but Robin? As in robbing? This just keeps getting more fantastic; surely you’re dreaming all of this. “I just feel like we’re pushing our luck standing here out in the open without our weapons.” Did he just say weapons? Yeah, you’re pretty sure you’re awake now.

“I’m going to say yes to that, mostly because I don’t want any reason to put that blasted mask back on. You get the trunk; I’ll take the dashboard. Then we can get out of here.”

Oh. Oh, shit.

You try to think of all the ways the bear can see you wherever you might be. From his high vantage point, he can probably see you over the seat, no problem, even if you are on the floor and not on the bench. You want to squeeze yourself under the seat, but if he’s going to do a really thorough job of looting, he’ll probably see right under the bench and find you in the gap. You think your best option is to squeeze under the second-row seats; that might minimize the chances of contact. He’d have to look at exactly the right angle to see you there. But can you fit?

The trunk pops open, and the passenger’s side door soon after. The cabin is bright and the bell is ringing. You hear the glove compartment pop open and a paw leafing through vehicle documents to find something good. In the other direction, you hear someone effortlessly lift anything of even slight value from the cargo bed and place it on the ground.

“You want a bicycle?”

“Can you carry it?”

“Is this even a question?”

More rustling.

“Interesting. They had a can of pepper spray up here, but they didn’t take it with them.”

“How about an empty cooler and, uh… one of those air pumps you plug into a car’s power slot?”

“I’m sure somebody can use it.”

“Sounds good to me… hey, I can carry a bunch of this shit in the cooler!”

Now you’re using your head, Johnny!”

You hear a pop from the rear.

“What’s that sound?”

“I’m trying to get the spare-tire compartment open. Maybe they have an emergency cash-stash in here.”

“What, and they would trust that it wouldn’t get stolen by a mechanic or someone like that?”

You hear the lid slide off. “You know what? Hold that thought. A friend of my dad’s planted money in his car specifically as a trap for mechanics and people like that to run off with it. To sue them. The son of a bitch took pictures before he put it in the shop so he could prove it was there. Nobody ever fell for it, but he couldn’t have been the only one to try that. He couldn’t have been...” The bear is now trying to wiggle out the spare tire. “And it also doubled as emergency cash.”

“Boy, it must be one strong hunch if you’re willing to bring up your fa--”

“Jackpot!”

The rustling in the front stops. The door shuts and the fox runs to the back.

“This I’ve got to see.” And shortly thereafter, from the back: “Johnny, my boy, you are on a roll tonight!”

“I mean, it ain’t that much, but I’ll take a solid stack of hundreds any day of the week.”

You knew nothing of money hiding in the spare tire compartment. That seems like something your parents would have told you. You just want to wake up.

“And it even has the little paper binding! Did they steal this from a bank?”

“Maybe we aren’t the only robbers out tonight, now are we?”

“Oh, Johnny, please don’t kill the mood by using that word.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” They share a chuckle. The bear continues, “So would you say that this was a successful operation?”

“Oh, yes, I’d say we can start packing up now.” The fox seems to be walking off as he says this.

The bear is humming some folksy tune to himself as he puts the tire back in and shoves the lid shut. The next thing you hear is a loud bump and a shout that borders on a growl. You don’t even notice when you slip up and let out the faintest of squeals.

SON OF A FUCKING-- Wait, what was…?”

You feel a presence get closer. Your face is stuffed under the seat, facing the front, and all you can see as far as your periphery will go is dust, carpet, metal fasteners and shadows, but you can still somehow feel that there is an entity above and behind you.

“Ah-ha, well what have we here?” Nobody in their right mind could blame you for your poor judgment in this tense, unusual situation, wherein you completely forgot your tail was sticking out from under the bench and into the open light between the rows of seats.

“John! What’s wrong? What was that noise?”

“I hit my head on the roof…” You feel a paw reach down under the second row of seats, grabbing you around the waist and ever so gently pulling back and extracting you into the light. You’re paralyzed in both mind and body. “...and I think I scared the little one.”

The only thing you think you can do is shut your eyes. It’s not to shield them from any sudden light, as the bear is blocking most of it out anyway; it’s mostly in hopes that it will make these monsters go away.

“Really. This whole time…”

“An hour of shooting the shit with the guy, and he doesn’t mention once that he has a kid in the car. Did he even mention he had a kid? Did I miss something?”

“If you did, it slipped by me, too. Now that I think about it, the wife may have suggested they had a son, but I guess I thought she meant he was at home.”

“Shows how important their son is to them that they wouldn’t even--”

“Little John, I think you’re just scaring him more.”

“Oh, I’m not trying to.” He grabs you by the waist again and picks you up, placing you on the seat. He lets go and you feel one of them start to stroke your head, but you can’t tell which one is doing it. They’re only gently touching the edge of your fur and you can’t get a feel for how big their paw is. The stroking does not make you feel comforted, but it doesn’t make you feel discomforted either; you’re just sort of numb to it. “Don’t worry, buddy. I’m a bear that cares.”

“He’s likely thinking, oh, sure, you want me to believe that!

“Well I’ll prove it to him!”

“Sh-sh-shh!” As earlier, the pig-fox pitches up his voice just a tinge, trying to seem more welcoming. “Hello there, young man. You needn’t be afraid of us. We didn’t hurt your parents, and we’re not going to hurt you.” You don’t know whether you can believe them. But in a spot of desperation, you wish you could. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“‘Needn’t’? You’re not in the old country anymore, Rob.”

“Johnny!” comes a stern whisper. The stroking stops.

“I’m just trying to do my part to make him feel more comfortable; I wouldn’t listen to a strange adult who talked funny. Can I give it another try?”

“How about we take turns?”

“Sounds fair.” The bear takes a deep breath, and then he makes his own attempt at sweetening his voice: “Hey, little guy. We’re sorry we had to do what we did. But we promise we didn’t hurt them. Not too bad.” You feel a thick finger with a blunt claw tickle your cheek a few times.

“What my friend here means is that they’ll be awake and fine in just a few hours.” He seems a bit frustrated with his associate’s choice of words, but you can respect the effort he’s taking to hide it. “What we did was something we had to do. The law might not say so, but we know in our hearts that we needed to.”

“And I know that sometimes I don’t feel too good about what we do, but…”

“...sometimes, you have to make a tough decision.”

“Be glad you’re still a kid, kid. Being a grown-up means you have to make a lot of tough decisions.”

“And while I am a bit afraid that the grown-ups in your life don’t have the courtesy to tell you that, I… well, I…” the Brit trails off. “I’m sorry, young sir, but… could you open your eyes? We just want to make sure you’re hearing us.”

“We want to meet you!”

“Very well-put, John.”

Thus begins a long series of mental curses. You curse your father for taking Sherwood Forest Road because he was too proud to take a toll road and too impatient to drive through construction. You curse the adults in your life who refused to believe the legends of the Forest were true. You curse the Delaware Department of Transportation for maintaining this road and not just swallowing their damned losses. You curse linear time itself for making it a statistical improbability that anybody’s going to come along that road at that precise nocturnal minute and see these two characters harassing you, let alone stop and save you. But you decide that this whole thing might end sooner if you just do what they say. Or with any luck, you might wake up.

You open your eyes to a sideways view of the seat in front of you. You can see two figures in your periphery to your left, but you aren’t ready to meet their gaze. You just keep looking forward.

“You see?” asks the fox. “Everything will be alright.”

“And as long as you’re a good guy, you’re safe with us.”

“You’re a good guy, aren’t you?”

“Rob, are we talking down to this kid?” the bear asks, quieter but you can still hear it clearly.

“You’re never too old to be comforted, Johnny.”

“I just mean -- what species is this kid exactly? -- for his size, how old would he be?”

“Well, that doesn’t necessarily determine anything, now does it? I mean, I was always large for my age, you were small, so--”

Enough.”

“Oh. Of course.”

Great, now these two monsters are fighting. You close your eyes again, to disappear and to avoid embarrassing them.

“Oh, now you’ve scared him again.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Young man,” the Englishman says again in his voice reserved for your ears only, “we haven’t much time left. But we desperately want to tell you something--”

“--a little secret your parents won’t tell you.”

“Precisely! If you would please just grant us a moment of your attention, we can tell you something that will change your life--”

“--for the best!”

“--and we’ll be on our way.”

They aren’t taking no for an answer.

It is indeed a fox, a red fox with a deep red coat and a pearly white muzzle melting from his snout. Something about his facial appearance just sort of agrees with the idea that he’s British; something about his eyes, you think. The peanut-butter-brown bear is at once next to him and above him; his hat and wig and moustache are gone, and the hair on the back of his head seems to be glowing from the cabin light it’s blocking out, almost like the silver lining on a cloud in front of the sun. Laying there on the bench seat, looking up at these warm faces looking down upon you, you feel like a baby in a crib, right at the moment when sapience first materializes in your mind, looking up at the adults admiring you from above, and although you can’t put into words who they are, you somehow understand that they are looking out for you and want what’s best for you.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, young one. My name is Robert, but my everybody calls me Robin. Robin Hood, of Loxley in South Yorkshire -- that’s in England, if you couldn’t tell! And this is one of my closest friends in all the world; he’s called Little John. He might be scary to bad people, but he can be a big soft teddy bear when he’s your friend.”

“But you can call us Johnny and Rob, because you’re our friend now.”

“Indeed you are. What are you called, young man?”

And you simply stare at them. Speaking does not seem like something you can do even if you wanted to.

“Uh, what the British guy means is, what’s your name?”

A moment passes.

“I don’t think lexicon is the issue here, Johnny. But listen…” the fox gives you his undivided attention. “We took some time to get to know your mother and father. And we’re afraid that they might not be the best people in the world. That’s why we had to do what we did to them.”

“And we don’t think that they think they’re bad people, necessarily,” the bear chimes in, “maybe they just don’t know how to be good.”

“That’s quite right! But here’s the good news, young sir: you don’t have to be like them.”

The two of them just gaze gently down upon you, almost fighting for your eye contact. You look into the eyes of the fox for just a moment, then the bear’s, and then you split the difference and stare at the space between their pairs of eyes, hoping neither will be offended.

“You don’t have to be like them,” the fox continues. “You can be good. You can be a good guy. You don’t have to take advantage of people to get ahead in the world; you can do it just by being a good person.” He takes a deep breath. “You don’t have to be like them.”

“Sometimes we aren’t even sure if we’re the best we can be,” the bear adds, “But we do our best and we try to get better. And all we can ask of you, kiddo, is that you understand that we’re trying to be the best that we can be, and that you try to be the best you can be, too.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Heh, this is why we’re friends.”

“And you’re our friend, too, now, young man. As long as you always do what you truly believe is right, and care for your fellow man, and never make it harder for those who have it hard enough--”

“--then you’ll be our friend.”

“And if anybody should ever hate you for being our friend… well…”

“They’ll have to answer to us.”

“They won’t be Little John’s friend.”

“Damn straight they won’t.”

They keep the smiles going and you have no idea what to do. You have no idea of what you can do. But it isn’t them you fear anymore. What you fear is the confusion. What you fear is that you still can’t tell if this is real.

“Now, we need you to do us a massive favor. Is that alright?”

“In exchange for being our friend.”

“When your parents wake up, or when someone comes to see if you’re alright… don’t tell them about us. Just keep our friendship our little secret, alright? Until it’s safe. Can you do that for us?”

You do nothing but breathe.

“Come now, my young friend,” the fox implores you, “this is the first step to being a good person.”

“You’re our friend right?”

You have to say something. You don’t know why exactly, but you feel like you have to. Maybe opening your eyes didn’t get them to go away, and maybe this won’t either; maybe this is just the next step in a series of trials and tribulations that these strangers will put you through before they leave you alone. But in the state you are in, nothing is being solved. Therefore something must change.

“Martin.”

“Wh-- what was that?”

“...Martin.”

“Hey there, Martin.”

“Master Martin. Martin von Bartonschmeer, yes? Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Hey, Martin, how old are you? Rob and I were wondering.”

“...”

“You may be right, Little John; his voice-- I think he’s a bit older than we thought.”

“Than you thought.”

“Oh, hush, Johnny… Martin, my friend… can you keep us your little secret?”

“...”

“Martin?”

“Martin.”

“What was that?”

“...”

“Maybe he’s retarded.”

“Oh, don’t be so boorish, Johnny.”

“I know you’re thinking it, too.”

“I’m sure he’s just terrified. Courage and cowardice exist in all of us. I just think they’re raging inside of him right now.”

“And I’m with you on that, that’s probably what’s goin’ on, but has the thought not crossed your mind?”

“...”

“Well… We didn’t hurt you, Martin. Please don’t hurt us.”

“Do the right thing, Martin, I know you can do it.”

“Maybe we’ll see you again, Martin.”

“Maybe we will. I hope we will.”

They duck out and start to close the trunk lid, but the bear stops it halfway down.

“Hey, Rob, should we stick around until someone comes by to help him?”

“I would love to, Johnny, but what if the police get here first?”

The bear makes one strong guffaw, but then curtly opens the trunk all the way again and looks toward your huddled mass. “Just to clear the air, kid, not all cops are bad, but, uh, the high-ranking officials of all the police departments in this area, are pure fucking evil.” He ducks his head back out and regards the fox. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You know I have family that’re--”

“I don’t disagree, John, I just don’t think you needed to clarify that.”

“And you didn’t need to pet the kid like a cockatoo. Didn’t stop ya.”

“It’s called connecting, Little John.”

“Well it’s not too late to… y’know… dose him too if you think this all didn’t go so well.”

“No, no, I have faith in my methods… I’ll tell you what: we’ll keep watch after him, but… from afar.”

“Alright, sounds like a plan.”

“Splendid. Close the trunk and we’ll stake out a spot. And send Martin my regards one last time.”

The bear comes back to the trunk door and puts a paw on it. “G’night, Marty.” Then the darkness returns.

***

You finally awaken.

The sun is bleeding through the sieves between eastern tree branches. You hear sounds. You can’t tell what they are, but you can tell that they are hurried, not quite frantic yet but getting there. Bodies surround the SUV. Men in uniform; a few women in the mix, too. A few different uniforms. One type of uniform tends to your parents, who are beginning to murmur uncomfortably. Another type scour the area surrounding the vehicle, looking for clues to some great mystery. The last type of uniform is focused on you.

Everything is where it would have been if it happened as you thought it did. But you can’t fathom that it would have. You can’t imagine that your father would pull over and help complete strangers and your mother’s behest. You can’t imagine that your mother would fall victim to trickery as easily as your father. You can’t imagine that there would be modern-day highwaymen wandering a shrouded wood on the off chance that they would come upon someone so easily buttered up by disingenuous flattery, at which point they would patiently wait upwards of an hour for their victims to fall under their spell, and then run off with all of the loot they could gather, physically leaving on their feet with their spoils carried literally under their arms, nothing more sophisticated than that -- but not before taking a solid few minutes to stop everything and impart their own personal wisdom on a child whom they only know as the bloodkin of their enemy. Such characters would have to either be masters of their craft or wizards who could manipulate the cosmic forces of fortune itself. Or hell, they might be gods. But you can imagine that your parents simply act differently when they think you aren’t aware; there are clearly elements about them that they do not trust you with, and their true selves may be on that list. And while you don’t mean to stereotype, you can imagine that between a fox’s charm and a bear’s insistence, that combination could persuade anyone.

They ask you what happened. You tell them that you don’t know whether it was all a dream.

***

If on a summer’s night a traveler, outside the city of Nottingham, cavalier in attitude and vainglorious in disposition, should find himself approached by strangers who can tell wondrous tales and compel one to act against one’s better judgment, he had best not be a rich man, lest he be stripped of all his possessions and all his dignity; but if a traveler should be a poor man, he need have no fear, for he and all those like him shall find themselves under the sworn protection of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Or so say the children.

 

Chapter Text

3 “Merry Men in Trees”

Goddammit, Martin squealed on us!

If there were, hypothetically, anybody in the vicinity of Sherwood Forest that morning who, unbeknownst to anybody outside themselves and possibly their inner circle, was hypothetically engaging in a moderately-to-severely illegal activity or conspiracy to do so, and this hypothetical person heard the very real non-hypothetical police cars and helicopters enclosing on the area from seemingly all directions, and this person who was hypothetically doing naughty things in a private venue assured themselves that the sirens could not be coming for themselves and their hypothetical/theoretical cohort on the grounds that there was no plausible way for the authorities to become privy to such well-guarded information of illicit activities, but then this hypothetical person was suddenly overcome with doubt regarding their security from retributionary punishment, the doubt manifesting itself as either an internal spark of dismay or a paranoid lament from one of their co-conspirators (whom it should be noted may [like this entire scenario] have never existed) itself complemented by a theoretical theory on how the authorities may have gained awareness of the hypothetical shady operation, such a hypothetical theory not even necessarily being likely or unlikely but in some hypothetical chain of events indeed possible, if such a person -- and may it be reiterated that this is all purely hypothetical -- if such a person existed, even if they were a fourteen-year-old amateur-cum-aspiring con-artist fox-boy who would not have such a destructive Napoleon complex if he were to physically embody the size of his megalomania and who had a long and documented track record of being wrong about a lot of things, even if heaven forbid such a hypothetical wretched soul were to actually exist, then such a person should really listen to their gut.

Because the police were not searching for any small-time schemers that Saturday morning. Instead, they were in pursuit of two costumed characters who presently were running through the forest, jumping fences, dodging trees, and trying to get away, these characters all the while contemplating nothing but escape, and how usually by now they would have made it, but the helicopters were certainly a curveball they were not expecting to be thrown.

They weren’t simply running aimlessly in hopes of getting the cops off their tails. The plan was to reach one specific destination before any ground units caught sight of them. If they could get even close to that spot, they would be in a part of the forest where the canopy was so thick that the helicopters above probably wouldn’t be able to catch even a glimpse of them, and they’d be home free, hiding in plain sight. Or at least they hoped that it would work out that way; they really were novices when it came to dealing with helicopters, but it was nothing that a little quick thinking and a leap of faith couldn’t beat.

“Alright, Johnny!” the fox panted, “How well do you know this forest?” He was by no means out of shape and was certainly no stranger to making a hasty exit, but he was pushing himself to run at a speed that would find anybody having difficulty speaking and breathing concurrently; the greater-than-usual number of pursuants had in equal parts spooked, invigorated, and flattered him.

“Uh, pr--” the bear sputtered, having an even harder time multitasking with his respiratory system, “Pretty good…”

“Excellent! Then… think of… think of a line of trees… thick trees!... Between here and… and the Major Oak!”

“A li-- a line of… trees?”

“Don’t waste your breath, Johnny! Just… just run with me! And don’t… don’t let the choppers see you!”

The world seemed to squeeze in on them. The roar of the helicopters faded in and out as they zoomed by in lines overhead, not knowing that their suspects were right under their noses. Far-off yelling and walkie-talkie chatter and squeaks seemed to be converging on them from all directions. And as they drew closer and closer to the big oak tree at the heart of the forest, the canopy upon which they relied for shelter just started to feel suffocating.

And that was when they saw it. The clearing that served as their own backyard, punctuated by one of the largest trees either of them had ever seen outside of a primeval jungle. Its trunk was wide enough for them to make a cavity to hold all their worldly possessions. Its branches were thick enough to support the weight of very large mammals who might need to hide in a pinch. Its canopy was expansive enough to keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Its realm was large enough to call home.

The tree’s one major flaw, however, was that it would stick out like a sore thumb in the heretofore unheard-of event of an unwelcome outsider trekking deep enough into the dizzying and disorienting wildwood and happening upon it by sheer dumb luck. Everything about it and its immediate surroundings screamed that it was somebody’s camp, and few could see it and not correctly deduce that that was the case. Honestly, it was probably the firepit that gave it away; Robin, John and company had never found a good way to conceal it without permanently ruining it, and after years of not coming even close to getting caught at their own home base, they eventually stopped trying.

When Little John saw them, he nearly let out a yelp squeakier than the one he’d heard Robin make that one time a few years ago when he’d gotten his tail caught in a revolving door; poor Robin had been shown in a rare moment of weakness then, and was again now that his eyes, which always did prefer the nighttime to that of the dawn, failed to register that there were two uniformed men making their way through the trees on the other side of the clearing.

Little John simply had too much inertia going for him to stop soon enough, so he collapsed his knees and slid to a halt like a baseball player sliding feet-first into second. Robin was running ahead of him, and when he heard the sound of dirt and turf swishing at his backside, his first thought was that John had tripped on something and fell forward so hard and with so much speed that he hydroplaned on the dewy grass.

“Little John!” Robin cried out as he tried to kill his own inertia by twisting his body backward and kicking his knees progressively higher so he wouldn’t make any more forward progress.

Shhh!” Little John pointed to the figures through the trees. “Don’t you see them?”

Robin squinted and tried to look for any motion he could sense. It took a second, but he did soon notice what his friend was talking about. “It’s the Boys!”

“No shit, ya blind bat,” Little John grumbled as he got himself up. “C’mon, we gotta pick a different tree to climb.” He looked up at the one right next to him. “This one look good?”

“I can climb it if you can!” Robin wasted no time making his way up. “Hurry!”

“I’m not a fucking elephant, Rob,” Little John barked; after feeling like the little rich kid from the SUV had betrayed him, he wasn’t in the mood for much of anything. He began inching his own way up. But while luck might have screwed them over with the oak tree, it gave them a little back when a helicopter passed over again, ensuring that the two officers wouldn’t hear the grumbling grizzly grunting just a short ways-away.

The boys made themselves a nice little makeshift perch in the tree, Robin standing on one branch and holding onto another one at chest-level -- he would have much preferred to sit down for the first time in awhile, but he stayed on his feet just in case he needed a quick escape -- and Little John hugging the base of the tree in the biggest gap between branches he could find. They were still well below the top of the tree, so the helicopters should have been none the wiser, and high up enough off the ground that somebody would really have to be craning their neck at the exact right angle in the exact right spot to snuff them out.

“Can you see them from up there?” John asked.

“Ah… not as well as I’d like, but as long as they can’t see us, I won’t be complaining. Are you sturdy down there?”

“I can stay here for awhile, but I can’t stay here forever.”

“I’ve got a nasty feeling that we’re going to be here a little more than awhile and just shy of forever.”

“Just tell me what’s going on.”

“Alright, but if I’m not saying anything, assume there’s a good reason I’m being quiet.”

“Roger.”

And so the stake-out began in earnest. Robin watched as the two officers entered the sphere of sanctuary, visibly astounded by their discovery before they had even found the good stuff. They seemed enthralled by how nature had set one enormous tree in this precise spot and let nothing but grass and weeds grow in the dirt encircling it, forming an almost perfect circumference of space; but the firepit gave away that there was a mammalian connection to this place. The two officers, a light-gray rhino and an black-gray wolf who were wearing the blue and black of policial laymen, walked slowly around the tree, as if overcome by a sudden awareness that they were in the open in enemy territory and that spying eyes might be watching their every move. They weren’t talking to one another, but it was not immediately clear whether this was due to them having nothing to say, or their fears of being overheard.

“Curses, I knew I should have reset that trap!” the fox muttered to himself.

“Oh, the only person who ever got caught in that net was you when you were sloshed like I’d never seen before.”

Robin didn’t say a word. He was too busy keeping focus to even entertain the idea of being mortified.

“That was a fun nigh--”

Shhh! I think they’re about to find-- oh, no…”

Yes, they had found it. The little notch that had started life as a tiny knot hole when the Merry Men sawed off the lowest branch and was soon carved into a cubby hole where the bandits kept their life supplies. The wolf turned on his flashlight and illuminated the cavity as the rhino fished around with his billy club; Robin couldn’t see what they saw from his angle, but the looks on their faces showed that they were astounded to find clothes, bedsheets, cookery, toiletries, and anything else a civilized person would have when they just so happened to be living in the forest -- or at least it contained all that which could fit in the bountiful base of the tree. As spacious as it was, it still couldn’t fit, say, a mattress or a sophisticated plumbing system.

“Huh. You’d think they’d never seen an outlaw’s camp before.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“They’ve got a look on their faces like they just opened a treasure chest.”

“They must be new to the force. I mean, most cops would probably’ve seen something similar, like a bums’ hideout, right?”

“Or maybe they’re just astounded that the legends are true.”

“Oh don’t get so big-headed, Rob.”

“As if I could ever get a bigger head than yours.”

“Jealous?”

Pshaw. Hardly.”

The officers were clearly being careful not to touch what they’d found, for they had no idea where it had been. They kept on digging deeper and deeper with their flashlight and baton, their arms almost entirely swallowed by the hole and their heads fighting for space to see inside, their mouths agape as they took in the small labyrinth that had opened up before them.

“Come on, get out of there!” Robin grumbled.

“They’re still in there?”

“Like you said, I wish they’d just write it off as some homeless people’s camp and leave us alone.”

Eventually, the two officers grew disinterested in fishing any further into the cache of conveniences, and they retracted themselves from it. They put their flashlight and baton back on their respective belts and started conversing with each other, but they were two far away for Robin and John to hear anything.

“Alright, they’re discussing something, but I can’t make out a word of what they’re saying. I’m hoping they just decide that it’s nondescript and they walk away.”

“We both want them to decide it’s nondescript and just walk away; we’ve already discussed this.”

“Well forgive me for my sins, Johnny, I’m a bit tense right now.”

“You’re not the one whose arms and legs are chafing like hell, now are ya?”

At this point, Robin felt the need to look down to make sure his partner was holding up well. “Are you sure you can hang on there?”

“My ancestors were lumberjacks; we know how to hang on in a tree.”

Robin just sighed in exasperation. “If you say so--”

That was when the both of them heard a voice that was strikingly familiar despite being coated with feedback and static.

Where the hell were you two!?

Robin looked back up at the officers, and John tried to make out what he could through the leaves and branches. The two officers were looking down at the walkie-talkie in the wolf’s hand.

“Oh, not this son of a bitch again,” Little John moaned. “How is he still in power?”

“Big-city politics is a soap opera that even my grandmother would find poorly-written and overwrought with vindictiveness.”

Little John didn’t have much to say about that.

Why did you turn your radios off!?” hollered the man with a Southern accent that could make Little John sound like he was a New Yorker, and a high-pitched snarl on certain syllables that could make Robin sound like he was a lounge singer.

Little John even felt the need to ask, “Jeez, how can anybody take orders from a voice like that?”

The two officers were murmuring their answers especially quietly, and the Merry Men still couldn’t make out a single syllable that was coming out of their mouths, but the hothead on the other end of the frequency was hollering his head off so that nothing he said was left up to to ambiguity.

Why were you trying to be quiet!?

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Then you should have called for backup, shouldn’’tja have!?

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Just tell me where you are and stay put until we find you!

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Well then figure out where you are, and tell me!

Murmur murmur murmur.”

“Now, you made a point earlier that you have family members in law enforcement; tell me, why would anybody subject themselves to abuse like this?”

“I don’t think this kind of behavior is normal. At least… at least not this bad. Police chiefs are hardasses, but they’re not always hard assholes.”

Alright, now stay the fuck there until we find you and we’ll go from there!

“Yes, but how does the Nottingham P. D. retain any of its new members in an environment like this?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Job security? Sucking it up to serve the greater good? Fu-- I dunno, maybe they’d never live it down if they quit… Rob, you heard me say I’m related to cops, not that I was one, right? I don’t know their ways inside and out.”

“Yes, but you probably still know more about them than I do.”

“Christ Almighty, sometimes I wonder if you ever met a blue-collar person before you came over here.”

“We were all fools in our past, Johnny. And over there, we use the term working class.”

“Oh, well excuse me, m’lord…”

And now it was time to test how good they were at waiting.

***

Robin was growing bored watching the two officers mill about by the Major Oak, themselves clearly bored out of their minds. He was almost relieved when he heard that infernal voice again.

“What the fuck were you two idiots doing!?”

A few birds squawked and ejected themselves from the trees when that scratchy voice pierced the silence. Little John, who had almost fallen asleep in his spot trying to count the individual lines in the bark in front of his face to kill time, was stirred back into reality with this unwelcome racket.

“God, dammi--! I-I’m back, Rob… what did I miss?”

“Nothing much. Chief Woodland’s grand entrance.”

“No, I don’t think I missed that.”

The City of Nottingham Chief of Police emerged from the density of the forest into the clearing, from around the same spot as the two officers before him did, and the slovenly gray wolf was followed by a few more officers in tow. The two who awaited him looked at once nervous and annoyed.

“I’m amazed he didn’t get stuck between a couple trees,” Robin laughed to himself.

To his credit, Ward Woodland was an imposing figure before you got to know him and pieced together how incompetent he was. The first time he had laid eyes on him, Robin had wondered whether a wolf-bear hybrid could exist. The guy was freakishly large in every dimension, but not so flatteringly so on the x- and z-axes. Yes, he was roughly a foot taller than the average wolf, and while a bear like Little John was still comfortably taller by at least a head, when John’s posture was poor (as a bear’s posture often is, especially when they spend extended amounts of time hanging out with shorter creatures) and Woodland was standing fully upright, the height gap seemed a lot lesser; but Woodland’s posture was typically even worse, forward-leaning more severely than Little John did, and burdened by more dead weight on his person than John had, proportionately speaking. There was one altercation in the distant past where the boys got in close quarters with a stranger who, judging by appearance, simply must have been a pre-Force Ward, since they’d never seen before or since another person who looked and sounded even remotely like him; suffice it to say that that altercation began with Robin secretly freaking out about the sheer volume of this stranger when he caught a glimpse of him where the wolf was standing closer to him than Little John was and something about the angle and the optical distance and the ambient lighting and everybody’s posture all being just right made it seem like this wolf was the exact same size and shape as the damn grizzly bear right next to him and that sent a shiver down his spine, but suffice it to say that the altercation ended with Little John insisting that the stranger was a lot lighter than he looked by virtue of not having any muscle mass. Surely it must have been Ward that day so many years ago, who has since become their most frequently-appearing enemy short of the Prince Mayor himself; it really is a small world after all, evidently. Actually, between being a disproportionately tall member of a canid species and having a rather ursine physique, one might note that Woodland looked like a hybrid of Robin and John, quite fitting for their foil.

“So what the hell have we here?” Chief Woodland asked in a way that suggested he was still livid with his officers but losing the energy to express it.

“A campsite, Chief,” the smaller black wolf answered. “It looks pretty permanently set up, but obviously nobody’s around right now.”

“At least we hope not,” the rhino interjected. “That’s why we killed the radios.”

“Because you thought you might be bein’ watched,” Woodland finished.

“By highly-skilled criminals, yes. Exactly,” the rhino said.

Hm. Impressive deduction skills, Edward!” Robin chuckled. He wasn’t aware of the eccentric way Chief Woodland’s first name was spelled.

“And Jesse and I were talking,” the rhino continued, “this could be their camp, or this could just be where some bums live.”

Oh, c’mon, Rob, this guy might be a dumb son of a bitch, but I don’t think he’s completely stupid,” Little John retorted.

“Or maybe this place is abandoned and none of this matters,” said Officer Jesse Surname-Unknown.

Are you just standing up for your people, Johnny?” Robin whispered with a smirk.

“But there’s a firepit that looks pretty recently-used, and in the tree there’s a hole full of clothes and, like, dishes and cups and things like that. We’re thinking somebody’s still here, Chief.” Jesse the Wolf was standing as straight as possible so as not to look intimidated by his hulking commander who against all logic belonged to his same species.

“‘My people, what’s that supposed to--!?” Little John stopped himself, knowing that an argument would be a waste of time and a risk of security. “I’m just saying, Rob… Even a stupid S.O.B. like him probably has flashes of brilliance, and it might bite us in the ass one day. You know, broken clocks. I guess…  what I’m trying to say is nobody likes to be underestimated. You know, in a weird way, I feel like I can relate to him.

Woodland started moving around the campsite with a suspicious eye, trying to see if there was anything his boys missed. He started over to the firepit and leaned over as far as he could to get a close-up look at it. All the while, Jesse and the rhino looked like they were debating whether they should argue their case further or just acquiesce, while the other two officers who got dragged along, a spotted jaguar and a hippopotamus, kept glancing at one another every two seconds as if exchanging some witty nonverbal banter about how there was absolutely no reason for them to be there.

And you don’t just mean you relate to him because you buy your clothes from the same aisle in the store?

Chief Woodland stood up from the firepit and walked off, not giving any hints about whether he found it to be credible evidence. He meandered his way toward the tree’s cavity while looking all around the space, to see what he could see.

“And those stumps… Maybe someone’s been using them for chairs?” Woodland surmised.

“Hm! Didn’t even think about that one, Chief,” praised Jesse.

Ya see, what I tell ya?” ribbed Little John.

Finally, the wolf’s quirky bouncy-waddle-motion brought him to the hole in the tree.

“And what did you say you found in here?”

“Everything, Chief.”

“We didn’t touch it with our hands so we wouldn’t get prints on th--”

But Ward Woodland was not a wolf willing to wait. He stuck his arm into the hole and pulled out the first thing he grabbed, which was a ratty old piece of cloth.

“What’s this?”

“I… think that’s a hand-towel, Chief.”

He would know that if washed his hands when he was done in the loo.

I swear, you’ve been such a smart-ass tonight.

What can I say? The von Bartonschmeers gave me so much material to work with, and now I’m finding inspiration everywhere.

The next thing that Woodland pulled out was polo shirt, a little on the small side, a shade of green that looked like it was biased a tinge toward yellow. “Now we’re gettin’ somewhere.”

Oh, don’t you get my shirt dirty, I just had that washed.

You’re welcome for that…

Woodland held up the shirt to get a better idea of its size. “What kind of person would wear this shirt?”

“Uh… a white-collar work--”

“No, you idiot, I meant what species!? Because the kid in the van said he saw a fox with a brown bear.”

I toldja Martin squealed on us.

Oh, Johnny, I just didn’t want to believe you. But perhaps we can’t blame him.

I offered to drug him; you said no…

“Now this can’t be the bear’s shirt, but is this fox sized? It looks kind of bigger than I’d think. How big are foxes usually? They’re up to like…” Woodland put out a hand and started moving it up and down to suggest a height range, but he was moving it all the way down and then back up to the level of his forearms and back down and up and down again, so he really wasn’t helping anybody visualize anything other than his own confusion. He finally stopped moving his hand around gut-level and proposed, “Hereabouts?” He grabbed the shirt with both hands and looked down at it pensively for a second, then tossed it to the ground. “Well they all look pretty small from up here, now don’t they?”

Everybody who heard that either rolled their eyes or really, really wanted to.

“Perhaps there’s more than two of them, Chief?”

“That’s a damn good point, kid!” Woodland went exploring in the hole again, and this time pulled out a huge jacket; this one was a darker shade of green. It seemed to be a lighter springtime or autumnal jacket, but the sleeves were cut off. “Now this is bear-sized!”

He has my jacket, doesn’t he?

That he does.

Then for a little something unexpected: Woodland proceeded to put on the jacket. All four of the officers were visibly confused and perhaps a tad repulsed, but they all knew that there wasn’t going to be any way to get through to him.

Oh, come now, Edward, you don’t know where that thing’s been.

Wait, what’s he doing?

Trying your jacket on for size.

What!?

Same aisle of the store. I called it.

If he does something to it, I’m--!

No, you won’t. You’re going to stay here and keep covered.

You’re not the boss of me.

The jacket was mostly well-fitting on him, being a bit long in the back but using the extra space well in the front. The bottom of the jacket looked like it was going up at a forty-five-degree angle from back to front.

“Yeah, I’d say this is about the right size,” the grotesque wolf concluded as he began to take it off. “Well, the descriptions match the clues here, I’d say. Whoever left here, left here quick. They’ll be back. Let’s try around sunset to see if we can catch them.”

“So we’re coming back here tonight, Chief?”

“Yup. Even if it is just a bunch of bums, we can bag ‘em for vagrancy. But I don’t think this is just a bunch of bums.”

“Yessir, Chief.”

“Y’know,” Woodland pondered, “we really oughta have some waste management people out here to clean up this litter, but then the fuckers might just move on… So instead!”

The ending to that sentence fragment was a demonstration of passion. Chief Woodland returned to the hole and simply started pulling out everything he could reach and dispersing it all over the ground without prejudice. Most things landed harmlessly, but some metalware clanged and some dishes cracked and chipped, and the chief of police successfully achieved his goal of thoroughly inconveniencing his sworn enemies.

What’s he doing now!?

I swear this man was raised in a barn.

Is he just throwing our shit everywhere?

As much as he can.

I really just want to kick this guy’s ass.

And I want to watch that happen. But in times like these, we must restrain ourselves for our long-term goals.

Can you stop talking like a philosopher? I’m really not in the mood.

Sorry, Johnny, old habits are hard to break I suppose.

Little John wanted to remark on the fact that Robin’s overeducated ass used suppose instead of guess, but he bit his tongue. He didn’t need any more conflict in this spot he was in. An evil man was making a lame but spirited attempt to ruin their day, his closest friend in the world was seriously getting on his nerves, he was stuck in a tree losing the feeling in his limbs, and he was starting to get hungry. He didn’t think he was in hell, but the idea that he was in purgatory wasn’t completely off the table.

Chief Woodland stopped grabbing into the hole and put his hand up on the tree to take a breather. He looked around and the beautiful little mess he had made; he hadn’t depleted the contents of the hole, but he had made a pretty good dent into it.

“Welp, I think my job here is about done.”

“So, Chief, just so we understand you right… we’re doing this in order to…?”

“To let ‘em know we know they’re here! Even if they aren’t here when we come back, we’ll know if they’ve been back because they’d’ve cleaned their stuff up. Genius, ain’t it?”

“So we’re just going to stop searching for them, Chief?”

“For now,” Woodland affirmed as he kicked a can of beans at the tree, popping the can open on impact. He smiled at this. “I don’t hate these scoundrels because they’re stupid; I hate them because they’re smart, but they think I’m stupid. They think that we’re stupid!”

Edward, you flatter me.

Goddamn, I’m hungry.

“They know that we ain’t found them for almost seven years, we ain’t gonna find them in seven minutes. But now we got us a harder lead than we ever had. We’ll find ‘em soon. But let’s let ‘em get comfortable for just a li’l bit longer before they move into their new prison cells.”

The four officers seemed to accept this as a good excuse to get the hell out of this forest. The Chief extracted his walkie-talkie as he lead the way out of the clearing back the way they came in from.

“Alright, boys, kill the helicopters. They got away for now, but we’ll get ‘em soon. Everybody back to your patrols and precincts.”

The wolf turned his back to the watchful eyes and his subordinates took one last gander around the space, confused about the plan but not caring enough to risk it, before following him out.

Robin breathed a sigh of relief and spoke in something more than a whisper for the first time in almost an hour. “Finally, they’re--”

Grrrbrrgrrbbbrrrgggh.

The officers stopped in their tracks and turned to face the noise behind them. Robin’s blood ran cold. Little John just looked down shamefully at his stomach.

“I told you I was hungry.”

“Little John, you may have just doomed us all.”

“What the hell was that noise!?” exclaimed the Chief. “Are there gators in this swamp?”

“I… wouldn’t call this much of a swamp, Chief.”

“I think we’re too far north, aren’t we?”

“I mean it’s mucky in some parts, but--”

“Fuck this, I’m getting out of here!” And that was how Chief Ward Woodland made his exit.

The four officers behind him kept their eyes peeled, glancing in every direction and keeping a hand on their guns, but they hastily followed all the same.

And then there were only the two Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Robin Hood was stunned. “Amazing,” was all he could think to say.

“Can we go down now? My arms are falling asleep. And the rest of my body is falling asleep, too. We’ve been up all night, ain’t we?”

“Let’s give them a few more minutes just to make sure the coast is clear. And why didn’t you just eat something before we went hunting? Like you’ve always done?”

“Because honestly I’m still spooked by the Leftover Pizza Incident from a few weeks b--”

“Okay! Okay. I understand your point. You don’t need to remind me of that.”

“I’m just saying, something a lot grosser could have--”

“John, We can talk about something else while we wait.”

“Alright then.”

Robin and John then proceeded to exchange exactly zero words for the next seventeen excruciating seconds before Little John had a thought he believed was powerful enough to break the thick silence:

“Y’know, Rob, there actually has been something on my mind.”

“Is it something less unpleasant this time?”

“Well… I guess it all depends on what conclusion you draw from it.”

“Oh, hell’s bells, if I can handle dozens of near-death experiences in half a decade, I can probably handle whatever you want to talk about.”

“Now that’s more like the Rob I know. So… you, uh… you remember that one time, awhile back, I forget what we were running from, but we were running from something just like today, and we wound up in a tree just like this, and…”

“I remember a few times like that.”

“Yeah, but do you remember after we had a minute to mellow out, we were just hanging out there in the tree, talking about life, and… I thought, hey, I’ve got a tough question on my mind, and I’m here with one of my closest buds in the world, probably one of the smartest guys I know, and as long as there’s nobody else around to judge me--”

“It was just the two of us?”

“Yeah, I remember it was just the two of us, but… um…” Little John wished he had paid more attention to his friend’s vast vocabulary so that maybe he could have learned some fancy words himself to find a delicate way to bring up some not-so-delicate details. “I think I remember that it wasn’t really, uh, normal yet for it to just be the two of us.”

“...I see.”

“I’m sorry, Rob, I couldn’t think of a better--”

“It’s alright, John, the past can’t hurt me now.”

“Rob--”

“Continue, Johnny, I’m on the edge of my seat seeing where this is going. I don’t think I remember this conversation we had quite yet.”

“...I asked you, ‘Hey, Rob, are we the good guys, or are we the bad guys?’”

“I remember!”

“You remember?”

“I do! I remember you asking that and me thinking, what kind of question is that?

“And that’s what I was afraid of.”

“...What do you mean?”

“I think I mentioned something about our whole ‘rob from the rich to give from the poor’ thing, because I remember you just responded with your little ‘Oh, silly Johnny, rob is such a dirty word, we’re just borrowing from people who can afford it.’”

“I remember that! And I still think that the only use for those three letters should be when a very close friend calls me by my--”

“Yeah. Yeah. Rob. I know. I remember. Well I was trying to ask my very close friend about something that was wracking my brain. Something that was seriously bugging me. And you laughed it off with a smart-alec little quip.”

“Oh…”

“Eeyup.”

“Little John, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were--”

“‘The past can’t hurt me now, Rob.’”

“...Yes. Right. B-but tell me, now it’s bugging me -- do you still have apprehensi--”

“Robin, cut it out, that’s not my question anymore. I’ve got a better question now.”

“Ah. Alright. Well… what can I answer for you?”

“...Son of a bitch, now I forgot.”

“Maybe it’ll come back to you.”

“It better! I’ve been thinking about it for forever now, and now I can’t make a sentence out of it.”

Robin just looked morosely down at his friend while Little John stared determinedly into space thinking about what it was he wanted to say.

“...We were soaking wet,” Robin recalled.

“What?”

“I’m starting to remember that exchange of ours; I could have sworn we were wet for some reason.”

“...We bumped each other into the river!”

“We did?”

“Yeah, on the log bridge!”

“On a log… Yeah, we did! A-and I think I remember that it was because we were joking around and being all gentlemanly to make up for that time that we first met, and--”

“We both thought the other was gonna go first!”

“Precisely! And we were being so silly and chipper that we didn’t even look where we were going.”

“There ya go!”

“This… heh, this is amazing, Johnny; it’s all flooding in at once. And then we had to get out of the river because a cop saw us and started shooting at us, and… and we got out of the tree when we saw a motorcade for the Prince Mayor and we just had to make ourselves pretty and loot him.”

“What was he even doing in these parts again?”

“I think he was trying to make some statement about the environment and nature -- some propaganda to look like a good guy. And then they had to cancel the event because of us! Huh-ha!”

“Oh yeah, that’s why the cop was in the forest, he was keeping watch!”

“Exactly as I recall, Johnny. Exactly as I recall…” The mood was successfully brightened for a moment as the two reminisced about times past, and the guys just sighed contently as they stared at the forest in front of their eyes, thinking of all the other wacky adventures they’d been through in its sanctuary. But the tension that was brewing earlier couldn’t be held off for long, and they knew that there was still some unresolved conflict that needed to be addressed eventually. Robin stepped up to the plate:

“So we got distracted… that’s why I never answered your question. Or at least I didn’t do it thoroughly enough.”

“Rob, it’s fine. It’s not the past I’m concerned about.”

“Have you remembered what’s ailing you?”

“I… I still don’t have the right words for it, but here goes: what are the rest of our lives gonna be like?”

“...What do you mean?”

What do I me--!? Rob, it’s the most straightforward question I’ve heard all day. Where do we go from here?”

“I-I mean, yes, I understand that, but how does one even go about answering such a question?”

“Say words, make sentences. I thought you were the smart one.”

“John, none of us have all the answers. All I can say is that I know that I’m going to keep fighting until The Prince Mayor either stops ruining the lives of helpless people, or… he stops doing anything at all, if you gather my meaning. And I trust that you’ll be right there beside me.”

“Okay. I’m with you so far. But then what happens?”

“Well… when our jobs are truly done, we can return to our normal li--”

“Rob, I’m starting to seriously wonder if you don’t know squat about the American justice system. And I’m no expert on how it works in England, but over here, well-intentioned crime is still frowned upon, and it don’t get pardoned very often.”

“Then our jobs will not be done until the new government is fair and just--”

“So what, we fight corruption with more corruption to get a guy we like in City Hall? We switch gears from being outlaws to being a fuckin’ underground political machine?”

Robin looked down at Little John and for the first time in a few minutes he made eye contact with him that lasted more than a passing moment.

“Little John… please don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now.”

“Are you seriously accusing me of being a coward because I’m thinking about our long-term safety!?”

“Little John…” -- a deep breath made clear that he wasn’t going to answer that question, for he had something bigger to say -- “...when I chose this life, I did it because I thought it was something that needed to be done, but nobody was doing it. I saw that something was wrong and I wanted to try to fix it in a way nobody else was trying. But I was young. I was stupid. I--”

“No shit! And you still are young, and sometimes you’re still stupid too!”

“I didn’t have a plan, Little John, I was just living in the moment. I was trying to be as selfless as possible, because I thought that that was what the kind of person I wanted to be would do.” He broke eye contact and gave his attention to his left elbow, propping him up from a branch. “And maybe I was wrong.”

“Rob, I’m not holding that against you. I’m just worried that it’s been seven years of our lives and we still haven’t made any progress--”

“Do you think I don’t worry about that, too!?” They were making eye contact again. “Do you think I knew it would take so many years? Do you think I’m happy knowing that I’ve had to abandon my family and lose so many of my friends and lay awake at night wondering whatever happened to that girl I loved? Do you--?”

“Rob! Rob, simmer down. Listen to me. When I asked you that day ‘are we the good guys or the bad guys?’ I didn’t need a lesson in fucking moral grayness -- I was asking for reassurance that we were closer to good than bad and not just the lesser of two evils. I was trying to see if you had any of the same… fucking… I don’t know, ‘insecurities’? Is that the word? I wanted to know if for even one passing second your charismatic ass was unsure of yourself even a little. I wanted to know that I wasn’t fucking alone, Rob. And you laughed it off and turned it into another chance to rally the troops with your army of one fucking guy. Just like you always do. And all I could say to that was ‘Oh, we’re just borrowing? Well, boy are we in debt!’ because I didn’t want you thinking I was some whiny little bitch. Should I have to feel like that when I’m talking to you? Do I have to feel like you’re going to lord over me with your unfailing frickin’ self-confidence?”

Robin looked away again. He was still in disbelief that this conversation was even happening.

“Well showing a lack of confidence isn’t a good leadership quality, now is it?”

“Rob, I haven’t stuck with you through all of this because I think you’re a good leader! I hung around because we were fucking friends! We were all friends! Maybe you thought we were just followers in your merry little band of badasses, but I wouldn’t have stuck around for more than a week if I didn’t think that on some level you thought of me as your equal. Am I a fuckin’ friend to you? Because I know that when things were good, and we were an unstoppable force and nothing could get us down, the rest of us didn’t think we worked so well because we were an army under a colonel -- we thought we were a team. Of friends.”

That was a lot of information to take in, and Robin’s brain was inundated. But he knew he had to say something before too long, lest he let the embers in Little John’s heart burst into another tirade. The full truth was that ever since he himself invoked the memories of the one he loved, he was trying to quell any forlorn feelings that might distract him, but he was failing at keeping them at bay so distract him they did; however, surely Little John wouldn’t take an explanation of this as an acceptable answer. So he tried to piece together the key words he’d heard and formulate a passable response. This is the best he could come up with:

“Well as they say, never go into business with your friends.”

“Oh, shut the hell up!” Little John took an arm off the tree and socked Robin square in the shin; Robin’s leg got knocked off the branch and his other foot went with it. Robin yelped a bit as the impact almost tossed him out of the tree, but he caught himself on the upper branch with his chin and armpits. He flailed and grunted quietly and shamefully as he kicked his legs up to catch the lower branch again and stand himself up, burdened by the pig disguise he was still wearing, but Little John didn’t let this distract him.

“Wrong answer, Rob,” he pressed on. “At least you have a girl to miss. Let’s say by some miracle Jesus himself takes the escalator down from heaven and personally makes Norman pardon us. Then what do I do? Go join Tuck and become a goddamn priest? While you use your pretty-boy charm to win Marian back over and then you two live happily ever after and you never fucking think to me again?”

“Johnny -- hrm -- my friend -- hmmp!...” Robin was finally getting the footing to prop himself back up in the branches. “...You’ve been the most loyal companion I’ve had in my time out here. You’ve stuck with me through thick and thin, and even when I didn’t deserve you. And I’ve wondered whether I would have ever have met a man as great as you if I didn’t throw away my future and turn to a life of… a life like this. I’m indebted to you, Johnny. Even after the day that one of us is burying the other, I’m not going to abandon you. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did.”

Little John needed to breathe for a second and collect his thoughts, because clearly this conversation wasn’t accomplishing what he’d hoped. The way that Robin may or may not have suggested he thought John was going to be the first of them to die wasn’t making it any easier.

“That’s not what I’m worried about, Rob.” Little John glanced up at him to see if he was looking down at him, and he was. “Let me try putting it this way: You asked do I think that you don’t feel a little bad about spending your life this way? I. Don’t. Really. Know. You seem so obsessed with showing the world that you’re a cross between Jesus and Superman, even I don’t know what your problems are -- besides Marian. Don’t mention Marian. She’s the exception that proves the rule. But really, Rob, I’ve shown you my… uh… ‘insecurities,’ I guess, in ways that I would be downright mortified to do with anybody else. The boys back home would beat my ass half to death, my father would just glare at me without saying a goddamn word, my mom would be apologizing to my dad for making me a softie, and my brother… he wouldn’t understand. The dumb son of a bitch fundamentally wouldn’t understand that I have worries; he would just tell me to forget them and chill out like him. So Rob… maybe you aren’t obligated to share your own fears and worries with me, but… I’d feel better about myself if you did. I’d feel less weird feeling bad about things if I knew you did too. And for Christ’s sakes, some heroic flaw like lovesickness doesn’t count. I’m not trying to take that away from you. But it doesn’t count.”

Little John needed to catch his breath after that speech, giving Robin some time to think about what to say.

“...So… you think I should be more… what, ‘vulnerable’?”

“I don’t care what word you use, Rob. Just be a person. Be a friend.”

“Johnny, I really do apologize if I can come across as… ‘condescending,’ shall we say? I just--”

“Rob, you’re a smart guy with smart ideas, and a lot of times it makes sense to listen to you. But…” -- a sigh as big as he was -- “Rob, I love ya, man. You know you’re my brother.”

“As are you to I, Little Jo--”

“But I have another brother. A real one. A -- what’s the word? -- a biological one. And everybody likes him, too. And everybody wants to be around him, too. And he tries to be a good guy and he thinks he is a good guy, too. But when he fucks up, he still thinks he’s being a good guy. And that’s why I can’t stand the son of a bitch.”

“I see.”

“...”

“Well I don’t want to lose a brother again.”

“Oh--! Fuck, Rob, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about--”

“You have nothing to apologize for, John. My feelings are my own responsibility.”

“...If you insist…”

They could feel that the heat was dying down -- not just in their argument, but in the fact that their outright yelling hadn’t attracted anybody, law enforcement or otherwise, to their location.

“I think there were still three of us.”

“What?”

“That day you asked the question about good and bad. I could swear that when that happened, there were still three of us.”

“It was only two of us in the tree.”

“Yes, but I think while we were there, he was off on his own little exploits.”

“Oh, yeah,” Little John recalled. “Dumb son of a gun… I’m sorry I brought up all these bad memories, Rob, honest.”

“Johnny, no, it’s fine. I actually rather enjoyed it. There’s nothing like memories so vivid that they can take you right back to a happier time.”

“...That you’re right, Rob.”

One last helicopter passed overhead. It would be the last one they’d hear that day.

Hhhrrrrhghhihhrrgrrdrrrr...

“...I’m still hungry.”

***

After about half and hour of hanging out in a tree and playing a very low-energy game of 20 Questions, the duo agreed that it was finally safe to come out of their makeshift perch and investigate the damage done to their real home.

It wasn’t so much that the mess itself was devastating, but more-so what it represented: the end of an era of peace and prosperity. For the longest time the Major Oak was a safe haven for those who dared oppose the regime of John Norman and his cronies, a little slice of the world all to their own that nobody else had ever managed to find and that nobody, they thought, ever would. It was a representation of a time when it seemed like the self-proclaimed Merry Men were just on the verge of compelling the Prince Mayor to get the hell out of Dodge for fear of his life.

But things fall apart. Each time that the gang was pared down a member, they had to reconvene and restrategize to accommodate for their new group dynamic. All of their momentum was lost, time and time again, and Mayor John was instilled with a new sense of confidence, convinced that these mysterious menaces actually had no idea what they were doing and that their guerrilla tactics would eventually become unsustainable. And now there were two, resorting to simple robbery and redistribution to and from people and places, hoping such disobedience would get the job done. And now their perfect hideout was compromised. Even among vagabonds, they were homeless.

Robin and Little John walked slowly through the debris, careful to sidestep their possessions. “It’s gonna take awhile to clean up this mess,” Little John lamented.

“That’s the thing, Johnny,” said Robin, “I don’t think we should. We know they’re coming back to see if it’s really us. So I say if we just leave everything where it is while we’re away, perhaps they’ll think this camp was abandoned after all. Does that sound logical?”

Little John gave him a sideways look. “Alright, a couple questions. First off, ‘while we’re away’? Where are we going? I thought we were just gonna hold down the fort and defend our turf.”

“I find that tempting, too, Little John, but I think we’re just simply outnumbered.”

“Hrmph. Don’t remind me,” Little John growled. “But as for the plan, here’s my thing with it: it makes sense and all to throw them off, but…” Little John gestured to his Reginald Chutney costume. “...I really want to get changed right about now.”

Robin looked down at his own blind-rich-pig getup. “Yeah, I could probably maneuver better without this thing on.” The two of them were standing almost perfectly still as they conversed, not having much else to do but occasionally turning their heads again to see what more of the mess they’d missed.

“How much do you think Martin told the cops? Do you think I gotta retire the character?”

“Perhaps it is for the best; we’ve had some good times with old Reggie, but we may have been pushing our luck by not taking him out of our rotation after a bit.” The thought occurred to him that they had been pushing their luck a lot more than usual lately, but he didn’t want to stray from the pressing issue of their immediate safety. “And if they’re looking for us, it’s probably best we’re not in the costumes we were seen in. I for one welcome the chance to never have to wear this thing again.”

“Wait, where did your mask for that thing go?”

Robin’s eyes pursed open and he examined his person, patting himself down to see if he had somehow squeezed it into one of his pockets and forgotten about it.

“You didn’t leave it where we lost the loot, did ya?”

“Now I’m afraid I left it at the side of the road by Martin’s car. All I know is I don’t have it now. Oh, bloody hell, bloody hell…” Robin cursed himself. “That’s another issue, isn’t it? If we take these off, what do we do with them? Leave them here for them to find key evidence?”

“Well, I think they already have plenty of evidence against us, it’s just a matter of finding us…” Little John kept scouring his surroundings to see what had gotten dirty. “Actually, it looks like Ward tossed out a bunch of our costumes and didn’t even put two and two together!” John picked up a wig that was under a fallen bag of potato chips -- and while he was bending over, he picked up the chips as well. “Goddammit, I can’t wait any longer,” he grumbled as he went to town on the party-sized bag of Carolina Barbecue.

“Shall we just hide these clothes with the important stuff?”

“Oh, there’s another question,” Little John coughed through a full mouth. “What should we take with us? How long we gonna be gone for?”

“Oh, at least a few nights until the trail goes cold…” Robin pondered.

“Should we take our weapons?”

“Oh, most definitely.”

“All of them, or just ours?”

“Hm… I’m not sure myself…”

“Because--” --gulp-- “I don’t want to risk losing them, but I don’t think we will, either. I mean, are they going to climb a tree in the dark looking for something that might not even be up there?”

“Johnny, you make a good point.”

“How about our documents? I know you don’t like having them on you, but I think it’s better than risking letting them find out exactly who we are. We can risk losing their stuff, but I don’t want my SSN card getting lost.”

“Hey, you should’ve burned it then!”

“Rob,” --stuff, crunch-- “remember, I don’t know how things are in the U.K., but here you really don’t want to be running around without papers.”

Robin just sort of stared up at his friend contemplatively.

“What?” Little John offered the open end of the bag to Robin. “Ya want some?”

“You know what, Little John?” Robin put one hand on his hip and wagged a finger on his other hand at John. “I’ll defer to you. You call the shots this time.”

Little John stopped chewing when he heard that. “Really?” he asked through a full mouth.

“I mean, my decisions have gotten us into a bit of a mess lately, so… maybe your decisions can get us out of it.”

Swallow. “You sure?” Little John looked intrigued by what was transpiring.

“Hey, Johnny, I’ve been on a cold streak. Maybe I should step down from being The Ideas Guy. At least for a bit.”

“Well, uh…” Little John chuckled to himself. “I don’t know if I can trade you the role of The Big Guy.”

“Then I’ll just be The Right-Hand Man,” Robin said with a smirk. He could tell that after the row they had earlier that Little John was seriously liking where this was headed, and watching the bear’s face light up made his own face light up. As he often did, he felt good about making others feel good. If anything, he almost felt too good about it.

“Oh, uh… alright, then! Um… so where do we start?”

“Why, at the beginning,” Robin joked. He was halfway uncertain that that remark would set John off again, but it was already halfway out of his mouth when he figured that, so he just let it finish and hoped for the best.

“Alright,” was all Little John said at first.

Robin breathed a mental sigh of relief. Okay then, this actually might go pretty well, he thought.

“So we’re taking our pieces and our papers…” Little John looked pensively up at the tree as he threw another chip in his maw. Crunch, crunch. Gulp.

Hopefully this will make him feel better about himself; he’s no good to me as a sad-sack, Robin’s mind meandered.

“...We can’t wear our costumes -- we don’t want to wear our costumes -- but we can’t leave them here, either…”

I still can’t believe that he was acting like such a baby up there.

Crinkle… crunch, crunch, gulp.

Has he secretly somewhat resented me all these years, or is this a new development?

“...and we need to make them think that we were never here. Hmm…”

Oh, what am I thinking!? This lad’s had my back more times than I can count. Surely if he had a real problem with me, he wouldn’t have hesitated to say so. I mustn’t be thinking so lowly of him.

Robin waited with bated breath and tried his hardest to maintain a neutral countenance.

“Hmm…” Little John kept pondering to himself. “You know what? ...I don’t think ol’ Ward’s got a photographic memory. I’d wager we could probably get away with taking a few things and he wouldn’t tell the difference.”

Robin acted intrigued. “Oh, but what if his deputies can tell?” C’mon, Johnny, don’t back down. Think of an answer and stick with it.

“Uh… you know, tell me. Tell me if you can name one thing yourself that you can tell isn’t on the ground now, that was on the ground earlier. Can you tell the difference?”

Robin looked about the things strewn around. “Is-- is this a hypothetical? Is there actually something that got moved?” Ooh, caught me by surprise there, Little John!

“Yup. Wait. Actually, two things.” Little John scarfed another handful of chips as he gave Robin some time to unravel the riddle. Gulp.

Hm, he may have actually stumped me-- oh. Oh, he’s talking about the crisp bag. Chip bag. Whatever it’s called. The other thing must be the wig, right? Was he giving me a clue or could he just not contain himself?

“Because if someone as sharp-eyed as you can’t even tell, then I’m sure Ward and his goons don’t have a chance.” Crink, crinkle… crunch, crunch.

“Uh, I… I submit. What am I missing?” I’ll let him have this one. He’s earned it.

Little John just grinned as he held up the bag of chips with one paw and the old blonde wig in the other.

“Huh. You actually threw me for a loop there, Johnny!” Good lord, he goes off on me for being a condescending prick, and now that I know I’m being condescending, he seems to be loving it.

“Did you actually get stumped or were you just playing dumb for me?”

“Johnny, you stumped me like a truncated tree.” And Little John believed that; Robin could tell.

“Alright, then it’s settled! We can get changed, and take a few other things we need as long as we don’t take too much to make it suspicious.”

“Sounds splendid.” Although I really didn’t care for that comment that missing Marian was too romantic to count as legitimate sorrow, or whatever it was he said.

“And-- actually…” Little John dropped the wig and the bag of chips and started yanking up at his collar to doff the ill-fitting Reginald Chutney dress-shirt.

“Uh… where’re you going with this, Johnny?” I know right now I could say that I’d never wish to choose to cut either of them out of my life, but if he were to force me to pick between having her or himself in my life… that would just about make my mind up for me. Wait… does he just not understand what I’m feeling? Oh my God, he doesn’t understand, does he? My, my, I almost find that pitiful. But then again, I must be quite the lucky one…

Little John held the stretched-out shirt in his hands and examined it, with special attention given to the corners of the garment. “Do you think we could tie these into bags to carry our stuff in?”

“Good question. I don’t see why not.” But none of this matters because Little John would never be jealous and childish enough to pose an ultimatum between a man’s best friend and a man’s true love, right? Right… right?

“Well, there’s gotta be some sticks in the forest, right? We’ll carry them like bandanas on bindles.”

“That way we won’t be leaving them behind, but we won’t have to wear them either!” There’s a simpler solution than gathering sticks, but he still has time to have it come to him. In all, I’d say this went pretty smoothly. If a bit slowly, but I suppose I did put him on the spot a bit. That can spook even the wittiest man.

“And they won’t look like the clothes when they’re all balled up, neither!”

“Ooh, I didn’t even think of that! I’m liking this idea, Johnny.” Robin gave a pedagogical, you did good, kid kind of smirk up at the bear who nevertheless had six years of age and a solid meter of height over him.

“Oh! Well, uh…” Little John chuckled nervously, “I’m glad you like it.” He was almost blushing through his fur as he looked down at the fox; John was seriously amazed by the quick turnaround of attitude from just a little while earlier. This wasn’t the first time that John was given the reins to come up with and implement an idea, but most of the past instances were instantaneous moments of brilliance when he beat Robin to the punch before the fox could think of his own solutions; this was the first time in a long time that Robin specifically abdicated decision-making responsibilities to him, and certainly the instance where John received the most encouraging feedback on his choices. And it was so much like what he wanted that he didn’t even think to consider that maybe Robin was playing into him.

“Excellent! I’ll get what we need from upstairs and then we’ll start packing!” Robin squirmed out of his cumbersome Glenjamin Glutton getup and walked a jagged path to collect his regular clothes en route to the base of the Major Oak.

Oh, damn it to hell, why do I keep thinking like this!? Little John is one of the best blokes I’ve ever met, easily the loyalest, he’s smarter than I give him credit for, and I cannot figure out why I keep thinking of him as some younger guy. Heh, maybe his nickname is having that sort of effect on me after all this time…

He stopped at the foot of the tree to wiggle into his green polo shirt. I feel like I’m betraying him just thinking these thoughts, but… something just isn’t sitting right about all of that. That was unlike him. At least the him that I know. I’m certain a professional would have something to say about how I can’t stop dwelling on it.

He took an extended moment to check for and brush off any dirt that may have stuck to his shirt from its time on the ground. Actually, I’d like to hear and expert’s opinion on how it was that when I called myself a leader, John didn’t deny it, he just said he didn’t like me using that term; I imagine it would speak volumes about how he sees himself. Now, would we consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist for that? Gee, I haven’t had to think about distinguishing different types of doctors in years…

Finally he was ready to ascend. He glanced over and saw Little John just outside of the circle, starting to gather suitable sticks which they would never need to use. Robin forced himself to stop stalling and start climbing toward the sight that never got any easier to look at. But I don’t have time for such thoughts now and I won’t in the future. There’s too much to be done.

Toward the top of the tree, there was a spot where the branches bent and converged at all the right angles to build some sturdy shelving. It wasn’t quite invisible from the ground below, but unless you had a reason to look up, you’d never have a clue it was there. On the shelving were two sets of items.

One group was mostly contained inside of one other object, a mailbox ripped off its post and still sporting the address “1192” on its sides, each digit on an individual sticker. Inside the mailbox were two birth certificates, two expired driver’s licences, two social security cards (one clearly printed much more recently than the other), one green card, one hardly-used passport issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (also expired), all of which were kept around just in case a situation should arise where they would decide they’d be more screwed without these pieces of paper and plastic than with them, plus a bunch of polaroids of friends and family (mostly Robin’s) and a scrunched-up envelope containing even more documents belonging to people who would not be coming back to retrieve them for one reason or another. Along with the mailbox was a felt pencil-case that contained other trinkets of sentimental value which would only clutter the mailbox, mixed in with some basic first-aid supplies.

The other category of objects occupied the majority of the shelf, being mostly long and cumbersome things. Five of these six items were originally sourced from one of their earliest involuntary donors, whose hobby had been collecting classical-style weaponry: there was a bundle set of an archer’s bow and a quiver full of arrows (the arrows being a mix of those original to the set which had been gathered, mended when applicable, and recycled after previous usages; others which were sourced and scavenged from places ranging from poorly-guarded renaissance faires to prep-school physical education departments’ storage rooms; and a few arrows that were homemade, the product of many years of self-education and trial-and-error); two long quarterstaffs (colloquially known as big fucking sticks), one about two-thirds the length of the other; and a sheathed broadsword, the scabbard concealing a blade which was reddened by rust and other substances, and which for all Robin and John knew was only ever actually used exactly twice. The outlying sixth object was a modern hunting slingshot complete with a wrist support, provided by its original owner. The best weapons were the hardest to trace.

“Hey, Johnny!” called Robin, “I don’t think we need any sticks for our load!” He grabbed the longer of the two quarterstaffs and offered it down below. “We’ve got one big one right here!”

Little John looked intrigued by the idea when he heard Robin call, and dropped all the sticks he had been holding and lumbered over, staring as if awestruck. “Huh, why didn’t I think of that?”

Little John grabbed the staff and examined it in his hands as if beholding it for the first time. Robin reached back up to retrieve the mailbox and pencil pouch and tossed them down to John.

“You might want to finish getting changed; I just need to grab mine and I’ll be ready to go.”

“Right-o.”

Robin turned back to the shelf and grabbed his bow and arrows, trying not to look at the things he was going to be leaving behind, lest he start thinking too much about them. Maybe this was the side of him that John wanted more proof of existing, because Robin wouldn’t want anybody to see his troubled face at this moment. He tried to reason with himself that in all likelihood, these things would be safe here. They had left them here for longer intervals than they were planning to leave them now, and the worst that had ever happened to the items while they were away is that sometimes some rainwater would leak through the tree and get them damp. Oh, but now they know about the this place!, he worried. But he kept reasoning with himself. This was the same police force that had never been competent enough to catch them over the course of over half a decade; it wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be able to relocate the tree again in the dusklight, let alone get the inkling that there may be precious items on a perch several dozen feet in the air. He thought was giving them too much credit.

“H-hey, Johnny?”

“Uh-- I’m not decent, Rob.”

“Th-that’s fine, Little John, I won’t look. I just need you to grab my bow for me; I need to, uh, make sure my arrows are all holding up alright. I’ve not inspected them in awhile.”

“Oh, alright, just toss it down.”

Robin shuffled the bow down in his paws until he was only grasping the top, and blindly shoved it down for Little John to reach it. After a few moments, he felt the bow stabilize, telling him that Little John had a safe hold of it.

“Be gentle with her,” he said as he let go.

“Don’t worry, I know how to play nice with other people’s toys.”

Robin threw the quiver’s strap over himself so it was snugly on his back, and climbed onto the empty space on the shelf. He looked down to the ground below just for some added peace of mind. Sure enough, he could barely see the forest floor from the perch. He was sure that the items would more likely than not be safe here.

If anything, he told himself, perhaps it would be a good thing if they came back and the abandoned weapons were gone. It would be three fewer things hanging over his head, literally, when he tried to sleep at night. Three fewer unpleasant memories embodied in physical objects, suddenly gone away from him. How fitting that a master of disguise could stand to receive a blessing in disguise.

Robin climbed down to find that now it was Little John who was waiting on him. John was wearing his favorite forest-green cut-sleeve football jacket and had his quarterstaff balancing on his shoulder, with their costumes tied into bundles at each end containing all that they would need and any frivolities that would fit.

He tied them together already? God, how long was I up there?

“I got the mailbox, the pouch, some food, some clean underwear…” He handed Robin his bow back. “Honestly, if there’s anything I’m missing, I’m sure we can find it somewhere else.”

“I think I’d agree to that.” Robin accepted his bow, which was a smidge taller than he was and was going to be a pain in the ass to keep hidden if he should need to, but he’d much rather be with it than without. “So where shall we go seeking shelter?”

“Well, my first idea was to go hit up Tuck at his church, but…”

“But that’s in the city, and we can’t be seen there right about now.” C’mon, Johnny, use your head… Well, I suppose he did say “but”... I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

“That’s what I was afraid of. Are we sure we shouldn’t be wearing some other disguises?”

“No, no, there’s no time for overthinking. We can’t stray too far from the safety of the Forest.” Or maybe we should be wearing disguises, but this is the plan you came up-- No. No, I’m not doing this again.

“Maybe we should cross the river and be closer to the suburbs. I mean, those were all city cops, right? We could just run out of their jurisdiction if we have to.”

“Bingo! And by the time they coordinate with the suburban Boys, we’ll have had plenty of time to find a hiding spot!” Good lord, did I just say “bingo”? I guess Little John’s vernacular was going to rub off on me eventually. Actually, I’m surprised it took this long.

“Alright, should we get going?”

“Let’s!” Robin wasted no time to take the lead and start walking westward, but Little John grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him.

“Hey…” Little John looked down upon him with a melancholy anxiousness. “Are you sure you’re alright with leaving the guys’ stuff behind?”

Oh, for the love of God, Little John, I just got over this…

“Or is it like you said,” John continued, “‘the past can’t hurt you now’?”

“Ah… well, it’s that…” Robin held up his bow. “...and I think we have enough to carry already.”

“Are you sure? Because I can always carry more.”

“John, no--”

“Rob, this is me we’re talking about. I can handle it.”

“John, John, please… no. We mustn’t concern ourselves with the past when we have a future to worry about. Now let’s go exploring to see what we can see.” And Robin walked off before he could think about it any further.

“‘To see what we can see’? Heh… am I gonna be going over a mountain?”

And so the Merry Men of the Sherwood Forest of Southern Delaware walked westward toward the quiet satellite cites at the far end of the wildland, the sleepy sun to their backs and their shadows leading the way, leaving their beloved home and its precious memories to whatever fate may befall it. But they had begun this time of their lives as nomads, and so they had become nomads again. For all they knew, this could be a sign that the things were finally coming full-circle, and this long and tumultuous chapter of their lives may finally come to its bookend.

‘...I should have said yes to the crisps; now I’m hungry…’

Chapter Text

  1. “First Contact”

Fruitland. The Fruit Belt. The Four Sisters. Cannery Row. Those were just a few of the nicknames put upon the four suburbs that wrapped around the city of Nottingham from its west-northwest to where the city limits met the Delaware Bay to the due north. Daisy-chained together in the narrow strip of land between the dense Sherwood Forest and the smaller pine thicket now known as the Georgetown Forest, Lemon Brook and Peach Creek were the first two to be independently settled and named in this fertile crescent, and when it was realized that they had both went with the fruit-and-waterway naming model (and when it was confirmed that this miraculous soil really could grow anything you planted in it), they filled in the southwestern half of the corridor with the towns of Cherry Stream and Apple River, with industrious orchards bridging each to its neighbors.

It was these suburbs which were imperative to the growth of the city of Nottingham, which made a killing off of the assorted fruits that grew just a few miles away. The city got enough money to sway the state of Delaware to make a canal to more easily connect the Indian River-Rehoboth Estuary to the rest of the ocean, and when shipping took off, so did the city that sat right where the Indian River widened into a bonafide bay. The city expanded north to Rehoboth Beach and south to the Great Cypress Swamp, and outward toward Sherwood Forest and the Four Sisters that had made Nottingham so prosperous. A village called Georgetown at the southeast edge of Sherwood was annexed in the expansion, but for their troubles it became the namesake of the smaller forest on the other side of the orchard towns.

Eventually, Nottingham’s success in the agriculture sector allowed it to diversify its portfolio, and after the Second World War, it didn’t need to rely upon the Fertile Crescent of Delmarva so badly. The towns never completely developed over their orchards, but they did forsake most of them, and now Apple Valley, Cherry Stream and Peach Creek have become more or less contiguous. Lemon Brook is not so much the ostracized Sister as she is the one who thinks she’s better than the other three, and there is still a great gulf of space between Peach Creek and Lemon Brook, occupied by a few of Peach Creek’s last remaining farms in the narrows where the two forests get as close as they ever would to making contact, before it opens up again where Sherwood takes a turn east and Georgetown simply ends. Indeed, the northern borders of the Georgetown and Sherwood Forests form the southwest and southeast city limits of Lemon Brook respectively, squeezing into the gap between the forests by the old abandoned cannery; looking at a map of the area that emphasises municipal borders, one may agree it looks like Lemon Brook is funnelling into a pipe occupied by Peach Creek, Cherry Stream and Apple River, and many of Lemon Brook’s most civically self-impressed like to make crude jokes about flushing their waste into the plumbing system that is the other three occupants of the Crescent.

The other three Sisters are typically friendly to one another, but all three harbor a bitter jealousy toward Lemon Brook, especially Peach Creek, whose northern outskirts have to lay their eyes upon the great silhouette of the cannery off in the distance. The relationship is so strained that all modern thoroughfares between the two cut through one of the forests and wrap their way back around; the only direct connection are some old farm roads, some of which are still not paved.

Then again, all of the roads and streets in Peach Creek are a tad counterintuitive. Most of the town is legally on its own “south” side, which is actually the southwest side since the town’s grid is crooked at a 45-degree angle to match up with the main thoroughfares from the city: the older Sherwood Forest Road, and the 1950s-built Georgetown-Millsboro Highway, a raised toll-road originating right near the center of Nottingham and heading almost perfectly straight northwest along the diminishing banks of the Indian River, cutting through Sherwood Forest, Peach Creek, and Georgetown Forest before surrendering itself to a toll-free surface-level divided highway on its way up to Dover. But because of the asymmetry of the Crescent, bisecting it perfectly wound up putting most of Peach Creek’s residential area to the southwest of these highways. Peach Creek, however, respected its symbiotic relationship with the Big City, so when Sherwood Forest Road straightens out as it passes through the town (where it is labelled as Peachtree Parkway), that line was dubbed the official divider between north and south in the town.

That’s how one may find the curious arrangement where the 200 North block of side streets -- both of them, as this is where the Crescent gets suffocatingly narrow -- is a couplet of cul-de-sacs which mark the temporary end of suburbia, abutting a trailer park and two junk yards before dissolving to the agrarian ways of old.

***

Stop!

Screeeeech.

“What!?”

“Were you goin’a turn right?”

“...Noooo.”

“Why not!?”

“Why would I have?”

“Whadda you think!?”

“Are you seriously demanding that I be able read you mind, Chief?”

“You wouldn’t have to read my mind if your mind was as smart as mine!”

“Then enlighten me, why would we turn right?”

“Because we’re trying to stick close to the woods! If you turn right, we get closer to the woods!”

“It’s a fucking cul-de-sac, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

“Do you not see the construction site at the end there? There’s probably a million places in there that they could be hiding!”

“Even if they were, it’s out of our jurisdiction.”

They don’t know that!”

“They might.”

“Then fuck it, we’ll call in the local guys to nab ‘em if we have to! Just turn right!”

“Why are we even doing this?”

“Because I can’t wait any longer to catch ‘em!”

“Yeah, clearly you can’t; I meant why did you send everybody home to wait till tonight?

“Can’t have the rest of the city running wild while the entire force is looking for some hooligans. All we need is you and me.”

“Yeah, a much smaller amount of people searching a much larger area. That makes sense.”

“Well I’ve got twelve hours to kill till then, and I can’t sleep until then knowing that I’m this close!”

“(God knows you’ve tried…)”

“What was that!?”

“I think you just want to be the guy to personally arrest them. Personally.”

“So what if I do?”

“Yeah, it’s not like the chief of police for a large city has anything better to do with his day.”

“Goddammit, Nutsy, when we get back to the station, I’m gonna have ‘em take your badge away for un-subordination!”

“Fine, do it.”

“...”

“Do it.”

“...”

“Nobody else wants to work under you, Ward.”

“Hey! That’s Chief to you, Deputy!”

“Then arrest me.”

“...”

“Do it. I dare you.”

Chief Woodland and Deputy Nutzinger found themselves in a staring contest in a halted police car which was nevertheless still in Drive blocking the (north-) westbound lane of Harris Street, two blocks north (-east) of Peachtree Parkway at the north edge of Peach Creek, which was indeed well out of their jurisdiction as members of Nottingham’s Department, but Ward didn’t care for the rules and his deputy George didn’t have any power to tell him no.

Woodland didn’t think that Nutzinger was right, per se, but he knew that for other reasons, getting Nutsy fired would be difficult. It was considered an extremely progressive move when they hired a squirrel to the force, although the cynics thought they just did it as a good PR move, and the pragmatists thought it was about damn time they got somebody who could work with the rodent community on their level, and Nutzinger himself believed both of these things were true because he had written the letter to the police department as part of his twelfth-grade English “write a persuasive letter to an authority figure” project telling them that they ought to make such a move for the above reasons, and when they actually replied saying that that would be a good idea and they could put him through the academy if he’d like to take a stab at it, he realized he didn’t have any better plans for after high school. In any case, it would look even messier if they cut him loose now, especially to do so over something like putting the immensely unpopular Chief of Police in his place.

Woodland did not, however, know that Nutzinger was very much correct that nobody else on the Force would want to be his Deputy. Nutsy only got the job because it was the least-inconvenient situation for everybody else: nobody else would have to work directly under and with Woodland, the functionally useless squirrel would be allowed to move up into what was basically a clerical role, and the squirrel himself wouldn’t have to deal as much with the disproportionate exposure to rigor mortis he was being dealt. Nowadays, he wasn’t being called upon to do it nearly as much as he used to, but when he was new, they sent him to go deal with every homicide, suicide, and really-bad-accident call in the rodent community, and this penchant for winding up in close proximity to stiffs lead to his nickname among the other officers, “the Vulture”; nowadays they only made him tend to the recently deceased when they were in a rodent-sized building or structure that the rest of the Force couldn’t physically access.

But he still wasn’t too keen on it. Nutzinger may have been jaded, but he still wouldn’t say that writing up reports about fresh corpses was preferable to his current situation of mirroring a glare coming from his commander while sitting behind the wheel of a squad car that was extensively (and expensively, thanks to the generous donations of the taxpayers of Nottingham) jerry-rigged so that an eleven-inch, nineteen-ounce squirrel could drive at the discretion of the six-foot-seven, four-hundred-pound wolf (although that second number might be outdated) barking directions from the passenger seat. The car’s modifications were arranged as soon as Nutzinger was promoted to deputy, as Woodland detested driving for reasons unexplained, but when theorizing why that might be, Nutsy had conjured some grotesque visions of the Chief in the driver’s seat and the steering wheel getting “lost,” as it were. Or maybe the fat asshole just found it too exhausting. In some ways, George was glad he got stuck with the Chief, because it was the ultimate test to keep reminding himself that not all obese people were as slobbish and slovenly as this guy.

The tension was broken when Woodland actually had a pretty good idea for once. Without saying a word, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a street atlas of the entire metropolitan area. He flipped it open and started leafing through to find right about where they were. Then he hit a bit of a wall.

“...Nutsy, help me find the page of the map we’re on.”

Nutzinger was spent for snappy comebacks, so he just hopped over to the atlas in hopes of getting this moment over with. He had some trouble turning the pages in the huge tome that was probably bigger than he was, but eventually he got to what seemed to be the correct page.

“Alright, so…” Nutzinger read the map carefully to double-check, “There’s Peachtree, Bedford Street, Harris.. There’s Rethink and here’s--”

“Re-think? That’s a dumb name for a street.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“Wait… I think my sister lives somewhere around here. Huh. I ain’t seen her in years.”

“What, did you want to go say hi? Is that why I’m doing this?”

“Naw, I don’t care that much. Just a nifty co-inky-dink. But this is the right page of the map?”

“Looks like it.”

“Alright, and we are… here?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Well then look at this.” He pointed and the two leaned in to get a good look at the map. “So there’s the construction site. That’s part of Peach Creek.”

“Alright, so it’s out of our jurisdiction. Mystery solved.”

“Hold on, hold on… look at this. Behind the construction site is a trailer park--”

“Which is also in Peach Creek.”

“But what’s behind the trailer park?”

Nutzinger followed Woodland’s claw to a point that was along a creek, which wrapped around westward so it was practically behind the other cul-de-sac on Rethink Avenue.

“...A junkyard?”

Mm-hmm. And what town is that a part of?”

Nutzinger looked. On the map, Peach Creek’s incorporated territory was highlighted in a pale green and Lemon Brook’s was light purple. The spot of the junkyard was just white.

“...oh.

“It’s not in Peach Creek, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It’s not in anything, is it?”

“It’s in Nottingham County.”

“It’s unincorporated. That means it’s fair game.”

“No, it means it’s under the county’s jurisdic--”

“Or it means that it’s fair game.”

“...Okay…”

“So let’s go hunting.”

***

The second cul-de-sac, with the even more offbeat name of Reimagine Avenue, had a troubled history.

It was supposed to be Phase Two of the Peach Creek Estates Housing Development, with Phase One being the homes built on Rethink. The development started with its focus on Rethink, which had more available space for houses, since Reimagine Avenue’s neck was already occupied by a playground built for the neighborhood on one side and Sherwood Forest on the other, leaving only space enough for four or five structures around the bulbous head of the street.

Phase One was finished up a little under fifteen years ago, and homes sold fast, especially to young families, many of whom were pleasantly surprised to find that their infant children were all born around the same time and would probably all be in the same grade together when they began school, and with any luck would all grow up to be the closest of friends. Everything seemed to be going well for the development company. The construction workers were getting ready to put up the extra five homes on Reimagine. But then the troubles began.

First came the discrimination lawsuit. It made regional news when they were found guilty of not wanting to sell one of the homes on Rethink to a family of skunks, and had to pay up a large sum of money which the skunk family used to buy an even bigger house in a neighborhood they felt was more tolerant. The house the skunks had tried to purchase wound up being the last one on the block to be sold, and eventually went to a wolf family relocating from the Northern Virginia area near DC, whose son was also the same age as most of the other boys and girls on the block, and even had a name homonymous with two of them.

The development company was badly beaten by this, but they weren’t out of the game yet. No, what finished them off in this weakened state were those trashy people from the Park ‘N’ Flush trailer park.

The proper way to access the Park ‘N’ Flush is a way that even the most patient person would find poorly-designed and annoying. One is expected to go down around the Reimagine and Rethink cul-de-sacs to the road along Georgetown Forest at the west edge of town, hang a right toward Lemon Brook and the cannery, take another right down the dirt road toward the two junkyards on either side of the creek, then take another right down yet another dirt path between the east edge of the junkyard and the west edge of Sherwood Forest. But it wasn’t always like this. What was eventually rechristened Reimagine Avenue was originally an asphalt-giving-way-to-gravel street, which provided a major shortcut to the trailer park through what was then public, unincorporated lands. Money is money, however, and the town of Peach Creek eventually sold some of that negative space to the developers who planned to build Peach Creek Estates.

The Park ‘N’ Flush residents really didn’t care for going the long way to get out of their trailer park when they could just drive through the construction site, cross Harris Street, cross Bedford Street, arrive at Peachtree Parkway and boom, they were at a major thoroughfare that could connect them to the rest of civilization. So they did. The developers tried to tell them no, and the residents threatened to sue. The developers thought that they were bluffing, certain that people as broke as they were couldn’t afford a decent lawyer let alone harbor a sufficient understanding of the law. The next thing that the developers knew, they were bankrupt and out of business, and all of the equipment at the construction site of Phase Two was left in its place because the owners didn’t have enough money left in their personal accounts to thoroughly advertise that it was for sale, let alone money to pay to transport it if a potential buyer demand they did.

Today, people looking for a shortcut to the trailer park or the junkyard can just drive to the end of Reimagine Avenue, hop the curb, and meander through the dirt past rusty bulldozers and crusty concrete mixers and the skeletal frames of houses that will never become homes. These stillborn corpses were supposed to be where families celebrated Christmases and Hanukkahs and birthdays and anniversaries and high-school graduations, where sons and daughters would learn and where mothers and fathers would learn to teach, where people would feel safe and sound after a long day out in the world, where people would sleep and have dreams so wondrous that they would be sad when they woke because knew they would never witness them again, where loving couples would grow old together and where children would conquer their fear of the dark and discover the hidden secrets of the attic and run through backyards blinded by visions of their own breathtaking imaginations while stepping around lovingly-tended gardens and dodging wooden sheds forever stained with passionate sweat, where happy memories were supposed to be forged so strong that photographs would be unnecessary, and where people would learn to love and be loved by the people they would never trade for the world. But this would never come to be. To the passers-by, however, this implicit misery was lost on them. To them, all of it was just a reminder of that one time that some that some rich people got busted for being a buncha assholes.

The town of Peach Creek legally reclaimed the land with intentions to just get rid of the construction site and pave Reimagine Avenue (which would be renamed to Khouth Street to match the rest of the roadway on the other side of Harris Street) all the way through past the trailer park and connecting to the dirt road that straddles the border between the orchards and the forest. But the town council just sort of never got around to it (when your town is next to a place like Nottingham, it’s going to pick up some bad habits), and in a pungent bit of irony, after almost a decade of cars getting flat tires and undercarriage scars from running over leftover construction tools and equipment, most of the residents of the trailer park now opt to go the long way around the construction site anyway.

But once in awhile somebody needs to get from civilization to the trailer park or the junkyard in a hurry and isn’t in any mood to worry about their vehicle’s long-term health. These people will cut right through the construction site anyway, and can range from a vengeful police officer in a furious hurry to a nostalgic motorist who doesn’t want to dwell any longer on the fact that he’s going to abandon his beloved old flames-on-purple van in the land of the forgotten, unaware that it might one day offer comfort and refuge to a party of troublemakers.

***

It was more spacious than they thought it would be in there, but that wasn’t saying much. And it was getting stuffy fast. The fact that Double-D was hyperventilating and wasting all the air wasn’t helping. Nor was it helping that that air was being replaced by fumes from the gasoline generators in the corner.

The curtains were drawn in the rear window, and the boys were lying down on the water bed to try to stay out of sight of the windows in the front. But the waterbed was listing toward Ed’s side, so Eddy and Double-D were stuck at the bottom of the hill formed by the displaced water. Neither was particularly happy about this arrangement, but they had bigger concerns.

Ed, for his part, had no greater concern than eviscerating his fatigue. The idea of letting Big Ed sleep through this long wait seemed like a great idea on paper, but in practice was a bit of a problem because of his tendency to snore loudly and with an open mouth, and if the ungodly sound that was louder than Krakatoa exploding six inches from your ear didn’t jeopardize them, the odor of his exhaled breath certainly would.

Ed,” Eddy implored, “Ed!

“Hoouh… Yes, Eddy?”

“You’re snoring louder than a bomb made out of lawn mowers!”

“Oh, I am sorry Eddy. Do you need help sleeping?”

“Wha--? No, I--”

Ed took the liberty of grabbing Eddy and holding him close like a child’s plushie. “Don’t worry, Eddy, I’ll take you with me to Sleepy-Bye Land.”

Ed, get off me,” Eddy growled through gritted teeth.

“Nighty-night!” Ed closed his eyes again and passed out almost instantaneously.

“Double-D! Help me out!”

Double-D was shaking too much to be described as paralyzed by fear, but he certainly was not responsive to the world outside of the dungeon of his own insurmountable fears. Catatonic was probably a better word.

“Ed! Wake up! Let me go!”

But Ed started snoring again, his snout right above Eddy’s ears, and even Ed probably couldn’t hear Eddy over the noise of his own making. Therefore drastic measures needed to be taken.

Wiggle, wiggle… CRUNCH.

“Gah!” the bear hollered as he threw his bitten hand up in the air, incidentally taking its vulpine occupant up with it.

Thunk. “Ooph!”

Eddy hit the ceiling of the van and fell down to the waterbed, which gladly broke his fall and absorbed his weight, sucking him into its abyss. But as all things must return to equilibrium, it soon after rejected its guest and ejected him back up with a swish of waves of water moving underneath its surface.

Thunk. Eddy again hit the ceiling, which was a much more cold and rigid host, and he fell once more into the bed, which gave an encore presentation of its impression of a trampoline.

Swish, swish… thunk! “Uph!” Swish, swish… thunk! “Gwah!” Swish, swish… thunk! “Pltt!” Swish, swish… thunk!Ed!

Ed’s eyes followed the improvised gymnastics up and down; it wasn’t quite the motion of a metronome turned sideways, but you could probably still keep a beat with it all the same. He reached his paw out toward the nifty sight, as if trying to physically capture the moment.

“Eddy, I wanna try…” Ed murmured sleepily.

Thunk. “Ed, no!” Swish, swish. Eddy’s life flashed before his eyes when he imagined the idea of Ed getting up and trying to bounce up and down on the waterbed in the finite space of the van, the vehicle jumping loudly like a giant metal basketball and attracting all the fuzz within a ten mile radius of their hiding spot. Thunk. This time when Eddy came down, he sunk his claws into the surface of the mattress and damn near popped the thing as he dug in to get out of the cycle. Swish, swish…. Swish… And finally the momentum was broken.

“Ed, wait!” Eddy cried, only to see that Ed had passed out from sheer fatigue again. It would seem that Ed was going to have to settle for jumping on a bed in his dreams.

But even though it wouldn’t be as loud as a giant metal cage crashing in place in the junkyard, Eddy still didn’t want to risk attracting the wrong crowd with the sound of Ed’s unholy snoring. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a spool of extension cords and fashioned a nice little bow around Ed’s snout. He could still snore loud enough through his nose to annoy Eddy, but it probably wouldn’t be a siren song for the authorities to come and bust them.

Eddy took a seat on the water hump away from Ed and Double-D. The three of them had been in there for a few hours, but the wolf was actually getting more nervous with the passage of time. Being alone with his thoughts had simply made Double-D more claustrophobic and nervous that every passing minute meant that they would soon be found, and with Ed being asleep and Eddy staring at the roof of the van to forget that he was bored out of his mind, it wasn’t like Double-D had anybody to tell him reassuring things.

Eddy, it should be noted, was not so much anxious himself as he was nervous by proxy from having to watch Double-D lose his mind, not unlike earlier when he was suffocated by Double-D’s fears until they started to infect him too. That part of him wanted to stay here for safety, while the other part of him wanted to split a long time ago when it had seemed like the heat had long since died down. But he stuck around anyway since his loyal lackeys were in no condition to move, and for all he knew they’d be too disoriented by fear and fatigue to think to find him at his house later on if he were to leave by himself. Now it was Eddy who was alone with his thoughts. At least it was much quieter now with Ed’s snoring taken out of the equation.

Hey, maybe they’re in here.

Well, then.

The first thing Eddy did was look at Double-D to see if he had heard it too. If he had, he couldn’t tell. Double-D seemed to still be in his own little personal purgatory and wasn’t showing any outward response to stimuli.

Well, one of them’s supposed to be a grizzly bear, could he fit in something this big?

Okay, hold on, how did they know about that? This second voice sounded quieter, but also somehow closer, as if coming from a smaller creature. It was much different than the first voice, which had a very discernable Southern accent. Heh, for a second Eddy considered that it might be Double-D’s hick uncle, and the idea of such an absurd coincidence transpiring actually amused him enough for a fraction of a smirk to crack his face amid the tension. But Eddy knew that it was incredibly unlikely that of all the cops in the metropolitan area that they’d ever run into him even once, assuming that he hadn’t been removed from the Force already like Double-D’s family suspected. But the possibility stayed on his mind and the small grimace quickly evaporated.

Eh, that’s a good point, but it’s not that small of a van.

Ah, yes, back to the question of how they knew Ed was in here. What the hell? Were they seen? Did they have details on all three of them, or just Ed, who was very hard to miss and could probably be seen around the curvature of the earth?

Big enough for a grizzly with room to spare for a fox?

Eddy heard that and came very close to giving a second meaning to the phrase “waterbed.”

I’d say s-- God, damn it!” hollered the Southern voice. A small thud followed shortly thereafter.

Aw, god--! What happened, Chief?

I stubbed my damn toe on this box.

Well this is why I don’t like riding on your shoulder.

Well, hey, Nutsy, I didn’t mean to knock ya off, but this box is way heavier than it looks!

…’Box’?

Well, what’s inside it? Cinder-blocks?

Eddy looked around the van.

Might as well take a look.

The ironing board was behind him along the wall.

I’ll laugh my ass off if we just stumbled upon, like, a brick of cocaine or something.

The generators and extension cords were tucked behind the front seats.

Well I’m sure the boys would enjoy that.

Eddy couldn’t see anything else.

Eh, I know a few who wouldn’t, Chief.

Eddy got up and scrambled over Ed’s sleeping mass to see if there was any chance Ed was just laying on top of it. But it was nowhere to be found.

Aw, it’s a bunch of, um… sheets of plastic.

“Goddammit, Ed,” Eddy mumbled.

That’s it? That’s what’s so heavy?

Wait, I think there’s something else at the bottom.

Eddy looked at Double-D again. The wolf had stopped shaking and was either breathing calmly or wasn’t breathing at all. He was just sitting perfectly still, staring at the wall, contemplating crime and punishment and the fires of hell.

There’s some plastic sheets in here, too,” the Southerner discovered.

What, to make IDs or something?

To make IDs--? To make IDs! I bet that’s what they were doin’, Nutsy!

Now Eddy wanted to hide within the hiding spot. He rushed over to the front seats to hide in the nook under the steering column.

Oh, look. The shipping label is still on it. Dumbass.

Man Guy, 201 Rethink Avenue.

Eddy could still see the daylight pouring in through the windows from under the dashboard, so he made his way back over the seats. He was going to gamble on a different strategy.

That’s probably a fake name, but that’s gotta be a real address. You wanna pay ‘em a visit, Chief?

Nah, that’s the PCPD’s problem. Besides, we can’t prove nothin’. That address sounds familiar, though…

‘That address sounds familiar’? To the Chief of Police? He couldn’t have… no, could he?

Eddy was over the seats now and saw that Double-D now had his head turned right at the rear doors of the van, listening patiently and placidly.

But y’know what? I bet we could sell these to the DMV!

Eddy heard that one in his heart.

Do I get a cut, Chief?

Eddy lifted up Ed’s massive arm and tucked himself back in there, not for the comfort of either of them, but for one to disappear under one who was already dead to the world.

Oh, Nutsy, I’m not evil…

A grunt was heard as the Chief of Police presumably picked up the box of materials that formed the crux of Eddy’s brilliant plan, which was now in severe jeopardy of being delayed, if it were ever to come to fruition at all. The plan was not to make any mistakes, but Eddy reasoned with himself that this was not a mistake he had made. He didn’t willfully allow his creation to fall into the hands of some corrupt officers who were going to flip his goods for private profit. But he didn’t do all he could to prevent it, either, and he knew it. For a few moments, these conflicting feelings of blame and guilt managed to take the spotlight in the mental theater of anguish.

Then this happened:

Squeak!Chief Woodland, Chief Woodland, do you copy?” A voice squawked over a police radio.

Eddy turned to Double-D again. Double-D didn’t move a muscle, but Eddy had a funny feeling that he had heard that all the same.

This is Chief Woodland, whaddaya need?

Are you in the middle of something, Chief? Because we need you downtown ASAP.

Uh, um… Y-yes, Deputy Nutzinger and I were, uh… helping an old lady cross the street!

Eddy was a bit surprised by the timid manner of his answer.

Well when you’re done, try to get to City Hall as soon as possible. The mayor wants to talk to you. Preferably Nutzinger, too.

He does?

Yes, Chief. What’s your current location? Do you have an ETA?

Uh, yeah, uh, um… We’re just in Georgetown gettin’ back from the Forest, we were taking surface streets. We’ll be there soon!

10-4, I’ll let him know.” That was the last Eddy heard of the dispatcher.

You shoulda just told him we were trying to get the forest bandits,” the one called Nutsy insisted. “How else are we goin’a explain a couple of criminals in the backseat?

‘Forest Bandits’? Eddy wondered, Is that what they’re calling us?

Nutsy, there’s this thing called ‘shoot on sight,’ have ya heard of it? In a place like this, nobody’s gonna notice.

Once again, Eddy was glad that he hadn’t consumed even a drop of water since last night. Double-D was still as steadfast as a statue. Ed was none the wiser.

Oh, right, like nobody’ll hear a gunshot in the the trailer park next door. Or the subdivision across the creek. And heaven forbid you don’t connect on the first try and you have to shoot them more than once apiece.” Eddy, eyes pursed shut, was hoping this deputy character could somehow convince his superior of this, not just for the sake of the boys’ lives, but also for the Chief’s sake, since this Nutsy fellow made a very good point.

You’re a little asshole, do you know that?

I’m your better half, Ward,” was the smarmy response.

Ward? Eddy asked himself, What the fuck kind of name is--? Wait…

Well, tell me this, Nutsy: how would they know it’s not just some kids testing out their playthings?

Chief, do you seriously want to take any risk of getting caught? I don’t know about you, Chief, but I need this job. To live and pay bills and shit. And if we get fired, we’re probably not employable anywhere else.

That’s why you don’t get caught, Nutsy!

These two were an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Eddy was half-seriously debating sticking his head out and telling them to quit bickering because the back-and-forth was driving him crazy. Luckily, he wasn’t the only person who was getting sick of the unresolved conflict.

Okay, fuck it!” Nutsy exclaimed, and then there was a sound of a slight struggle with some rustled garments.

Hey! What’re you-- My gun!

Eddy thought he was going to hear a loud bang and a hearty thud, but instead he heard some rustling running under the van. Was there a snake or something moving down there? How big was this Nutsy guy, anyway? Wait, what didn’t he mention something about riding on the Chief’s shoulder?

The sound went to the front of the van up against the trash heap, paused for a second, and went out the right side.

Why the hell did you do that!?

Looks like you’re gonna need a new gun from the station, Chief.

Do you know how bad that’s going to make me look!?

Yeah: less bad than shooting some people outside of your jurisdiction. Now c’mon, The Prince is waiting!” The voice seemed to get quieter as the statement went on.

Goddammit, Nutsy!” And then the ride began. The van started shaking left and right to the rhythm of some grunts coming from the front right side. Some more muttering and swearing under breath was peppered in there, and as well as some strained breathing. Eddy wrapped his arms around Ed’s to hang on during the rollercoaster ride, fully aware that the shaking could cause Ed to roll onto him and crush him, but trying not to think about it. Somewhere below his sideways line of vision, he heard Double-D fall forward softly onto the mattress, seemingly forced out of his paralysis.

The shaking stopped and more grunting was heard as the Chief must have abandoned his quest to retrieve his weapon. “Nutsy, get back here and get me my gun!

The fuck are you gonna do, shoot me?” The voice was very small and distant now.

We ain’t even checked out this van yet!

They’d’ve made a noise by now if there was anybody in there!

More nonverbal cursing and grumbling was heard, punctuated by a sudden shattering of glass. Eddy shifted his eyes toward the sliver of negative space where he could see to the passenger’s side window. He didn’t get much of a complete picture, but he could have swore he saw a short, wide blue sleeve over a flabby gray-furred arm, a bent elbow retreating from the space where a window once was.

“Hell, now I’m bleeding.” There was no more muffling of voices; it was all loud and clear. The sound of spitting could be heard, and then of frustrated footsteps taking their leave.

Eddy could feel behind him that Ed was stirring. Eddy wiggled his way out of the crook of Ed’s arm.

“Hrrmmrhrhrrm?” Ed said through a tethered snout.

Shh!” begged Eddy as he went over to the victim who was most affected. “Uh… Double-D? How ya holding up?”

Double-D was sitting upright again against Ed’s stomach, legs crossed neatly and his hands on his legs. If not for the distress in his eyes, one might think he were meditating. Eddy approached him. Even sitting down, the wolf, who was barely averaged-sized for his own species at his age, had to look down upon the dwarfish fox standing next to him. Eddy noticed this; in this strange moment, he didn’t care.

“Doub-- uh… Double-D, you know a lot of… stuff, right? Um… do you know if your mom’s maiden name is, uh… really common?”

For a second, Double-D just stared at him with a look like he had just seen innocence incarnate murdered and violated by a mob in the street. Then he opened his mouth and said:

“I am prepared for death at any moment, Eddy.”

“Wh-- What?

The footsteps returned, and the boys turned to face the direction from which they came. Without a word, the heavy stomping made its way to the back of the truck, stopped to make way for a grunt, and disappeared again.

Double-D turned back to Eddy, who knew he was going to have to spend another few hours in here while his friends emotionally recuperated. At least it wasn’t as stuffy with the window open.

“I am prepared for death at any moment.”

***

The sun was now high in the sky and it was starting to get hot in there.

“Jeez, I guess your parents really don’t keep up with the guy.”

“I recall that when he first started, he was almost invariably put on night shifts, so my parents used his odd hours to to justify never attempting to contact him, seeing as he’d never be awake at the same time they would be.” It had taken awhile, but he had come back up to Earth.

“Well, when did they promote him?”

“I don’t know, Eddy. After they came to their rationale for never having reason to call him on the phone, that was the last we’d heard of him. I believe my parents assumed that he would soon be fired and that we would one day receive a call asking if he could seek refuge from homelessness in our house. But that call never came, and I always assumed he was simply busy with his line of work, remaining as a low-level officer. I’m sure that if I questioned my parents, they would tell me that they assumed he had shamefully returned to my grandparents’ home in Virginia without saying a word to my mother or father.”

“But you do think that was him, though, right?”

“His speech patterns and accent do certainly match the uncle I last encountered when I was eight. I do suppose that living in such close proximity to his place of work would have made encountering him on-duty an inevitability if given enough time.”

“I just can’t believe it.”

“I share your disbelief, Eddy, but perhaps our beliefs flew in the face of logical deduction.”

“And I still can’t believe you’re related to a guy like that.”

“That’s the thing, Eddy…”

“What?”

Double-D was looking down at his folded hands, trying to piece together what was not completely clear to him either. “I confess that I harbor a strong distaste for this man, but as I heard his voice again, I began to wonder whether I only resent him because of what are informed flaws.”

“Eddy, Double-D’s using big words again, and it’s making me feel like my head is lifting off of my body to blast off into space fight the bad guys from Rejects of an Alien World 2.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re sitting too close to the gas fumes, Ed.”

“Ed, what I mean is that as much as I heard aggression and malice in his voice, it reminded me of all the times I actually interacted with him, and I must say that the personality I remember is very incongruous with what I heard outside those doors. I’m starting to wonder if I ever really witnessed him engage in anything evil. I do remember that he was rather uncouth and--”

“Huh?”

“...He was rather improper in demeanor.”

“Like how?”

“Like you heard, constantly swearing and showing complete disregard for formal pronunciation or grammar. Furthermore, he would often leave abhorrent messes about and wore clothes with holes in them and ate as would a savage, and even as a child I noticed this. I know for certain my parents noticed this, and after we stopped seeing him around, my parents told me about shameful and unscrupulous things he had done in his life, ranging from that which is embarrassing to the downright despicable.”

“Double-D, it ain’t just Ed bein’ Ed, I’m lost. Where are you going with this?”

Double-D sighed and looked up again to match Eddy’s gaze. “As simply as I can put it Eddy, I think I’ve had an epiphany that I once knew my uncle as a man who, despite his poor manners, was actually rather kind-hearted, at least toward me. I think that I had only begun to hate him when my parent’s cautionary tales of his misdeeds began to outweigh the positive memories I recall of him. Does that make sense?”

Eddy held his hand out and tilted it side to side while putting on a confused wince. Ed simply cocked his head.

Double-D sighed and gave it another go. “I… think… I used to think… that he -- my uncle Ward -- I used to think -- when I was a little kid, I mean -- I used to think he was a ‘cool’ uncle. But my parents didn’t like him. So when we stopped seeing him, they… they told me all the bad things they could about him… until I believed them. And if that was indeed him out there, perhaps they were right. About his being a bad man. Was that… can you comprehend that?”

“Double-D, don’t talk to us like you think we’re stupid.”

“Oh, for the love of--!” But he bit his tongue. “Do you get what I’m saying or not, Eddy?”

“Double-D, chill out, I get it. He was your favorite uncle until your parents brainwashed you.”

“But also--”

Gasp! “Double-D’s been brainwashed!”

“Ed, no.”

“That’s not the whole picture, Ed--”

“We must un-cleanse him!”

“Ed, calm down.”

“‘Un-cleanse me’!?”

“I will sop the bleach from your head, Double-D!”

“Ed, shush!”

“Ed, what do you--!? Aah!”

Sluuuurp.

“Ed!”

“Ed, unhand me!”

Shluuur-urp!

“Goddammit, Ed!”

“This is disgusting!

Slurrrp.

“AAARGH!”

“Both of you, shut up, you’re gonna get us all killed!”

I can feel his saliva in my ear canal!

“Do you hear voices?” asked a peculiarly British accent from far away, with a tinge of an echo; at least that was their best guess at what was said, as it was a bit hard to hear.

Silence returned to the van. The three of them disengaged from their struggle and turned toward the open window.

“Not really,” asked a much more American voice, also distorted by distance and topography.

“Of course, now that I ask, I can’t hear them anymore,” Robin lamented. No longer seeing the need to stay still and attentive, he kept making his way around the mound of trash.

“Maybe they heard us?” Little John posited as he bagan following again, adjusting the quarterstaff with bindles so it rested more comfortably on his shoulder.

“Perhaps, perhaps not. If there’s anybody here, we have our wits and our weapons about us.”

“And if they have a shotgun or something?”

“Our wits and our weapons are stronger than the sum of their parts, Johnny. Have some faith in yourself.”

“I’m telling ya, Rob, if it’s just gonna be the two of us, we ought to invest in a firearm.”

“Johnny, my boy, when did you develop such a bloodlust?”

“I meant just to have. For emergencies. Which we keep winding up in.” Little John squeezed past a washing machine that was smack dab in the middle of the valley between the two mountains.

“Oh, you Americans and your guns…” Robin stopped to look at a pile of cans to see if any contained something they could use. They didn’t.

“Hey, Rob, you don’t know my people like I know my people.”

“But am I not one of your people now?”

“I dunno, Rob, do you wanna pull over and remind yourself how long ago your green card expired?”

“Oh, piss off, Little John,” was Robin’s friendly scoff. “I’ve been here for, what?... Eleven years now? I’ll take the citizenship test in front of their eyes if they want me to. I’m qualified.”

“I thought you already took the test and failed,” Little John said with a smirk.

“I didn’t fail, Little John, I just didn’t stick around long enough to find out if I passed,” Robin corrected with confidence as he stepped over an old bicycle in his way.

“Yeah,” Little John chuckled. “Alright. Sure you did.”

“Quiz me then!” Robin was nearing the clearing at the exit of the valley.

“Alright, fine. Uh…” Little John tried to think of a good one as he picked up the bicycle with his free hand and tossed it onto the mound with a muffled crash. “Okay, here’s an easy one. Who was president the year you were born?”

“That would be-- Oh, Lord.”

“Nope! It was Nixon, you limey bastard! And you said you--”

Little John caught up to Robin and saw what had inspired his remark. It looked as though the center of one of the mountains could not hold and now there was a bunch of junk splayed all over the place. It didn’t quite look like a bomb went off, but the scene certainly could bring that old idiom into one’s mind.

“...Oh,” muttered Little John. “For the record, I thought you said ‘Ford.’”

“What? Oh, that. No, no, no. Ford wasn’t inaugurated until Nixon resigned the summer after I was born.”

“Huh. Well, alright then.”

“So evidently… these piles can just collapse at any time.”

“I was afraid there were other people in here with weapons and you basically called me a pussy; now you’re afraid of a little bit of structural un-integrity after living in a tree for seven years?”

“I’m not afraid, but I am apprehensive. I’m sure that another collapse like this isn’t likely, but I just had a thought that it would be ridiculous if after all we’ve been through, we died in an avalanche of garbage.”

Little John took his own assessment of the damage from his higher vantage point. He saw something way off to the right, around a bend almost hidden behind the slope of the same mountain that they were just working their way around.

“Maybe we could stay in there?” he pointed.

“Where?”

“There.”

“I don’t see anything, John.”

Little John gave Robin a look of frustration, and as he looked down at him, he realized that because of the slope of the mound, its base was thicker at Robin’s eye-level and he genuinely couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Little John put down his staff and grabbed Robin under the armpits, and before the fox could protest, Little John lifted him up and thrust him in the direction of his discovery.

There.

“...Do you mean the van?”

“I mean the van.”

“I don’t see why not. Let’s check it out!”

Little John put Robin back down gently. “There ya go, little guy.”

Robin picked up the bow he dropped during the sudden altitude change. “Hey now, I’m not the one with little in his name, now am I, Little John?” he ribbed a bit loudly.

“What can I say?” Little John picked up his staff and placed it back on his shoulder. “I come from a long line of bears with a great sense of humor,” he proclaimed proudly. They both knew that wasn’t a completely accurate explanation of the etymological quirk, but if Little John were ever to be in the mood to discuss it, it certainly wasn’t going to be now.

“Okay, so now we know one of them’s a bear, and I think his name is... ‘Little John’?” Eddy whispered to his boys, breaking the silence; those last few sentences were the first they could truly hear clearly. “That’s a stupid name, but… Ed, would you be able to do the talking to this guy if he gels with you?”

“But what if he’s mean like Dad is!?”

“That’s why you’d be doing the talking.” They were whispering just loudly enough that the voices of the two outsiders were obscured, even as they did get closer.

“While I will concede that this ‘Little John’ character seems like he may be an aggressive personality, judging purely by his voice,” Double-D observed, “it also seems like he is being fairly jovial to this other fellow -- did I hear ‘Ron’ or ‘Bob’? But I have to ask, Eddy, do you really think that Ed would be the best ambassador to his ursine brethren?”

“People like talking to people who look like them, Double-D. When you grow up, you’ll realize that.”

“Would you rather speak to fox you didn’t know than a stranger of any other persuasion?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Now hush, I think they’re getting clo--”

“Well, the window’s open!” remarked Ron-Bob the British Person. “If it’s locked, we can at least open it from the inside!”

“It actually looks like somebody broke it,” noted Little John the Presumably-American Bear. “See the jagged little pieces sticking up from the bottom?”

“Ah, good eye, Johnny.”

Then they saw him. A distinctly canine head welcomed itself in, craning into the window frame and looking straight down at the glass in the passenger’s seat. Nothing registered in his peripheral vision in the brief moment between his head entering the van and when the seat’s headrest began to block the beings in the corner from his line of vision.

“Remind me not to sit in the passenger seat!”

“Eddy! He looks just like you!”

Ed was wrong. Despite being members of the same species, they looked noticeably dissimilar. This guy had fur that was almost blood red with dirty-snow grayish-white, whereas Eddy and his kin had a mix light tan on a rustier, almost-orange red. Furthermore, Eddy thought there was something strange about how this fox was just leaning into the window of a truck this large; was he standing on something? But Robin didn’t know about the inaccuracy of the comparison yet when he jumped from surprise and turned toward the sound of the voice.

“Oh! I, uh… a thousand apologies, gentlemen! I didn’t see you there!”

Eddy and Double-D were too shocked and confused to say a word. Ed was disoriented by the big words again and decided to sit this round out.

“Wait, Rob, there’s people in there!?” The boys could hear Little John right outside the window but they still couldn’t see him.

“Er-- Excuse me for a moment, lads.” Robin pulled his head out and addressed Little John. “Put these under the van for a second,” they heard him whisper from out-of-sight.

“Wait, why?” Little John asked at full volume.

Shh! I think they’re just kids, we don’t need to scare them.

“Do they not wish to scare us so they can make us feel comfortable before they do harm to us?” Double-D pondered softly. Eddy and Ed had no good answers to that.

Some shuffling was heard of objects being shoved under the vehicle. Robin stuck his head back in and went to place his hands on the windowsill, forgetting that it was not quite suitable for resting his palms.

“Sorry about that; now do you boys live he-- gah! Bloody… fucking hell!”

“What did I miss now?” asked the bear.

“I forgot about the bloody glass!” Robin pulled himself away from the window to show Little John, who was just now standing back up.

“Jeez, Rob, how do you forget about broken glass two seconds after you pointed it out?”

“I’m tired and my mind is wandering, Little-- fuck, that actually does hurt!”

Robin,” Little John whispered mindfully this time, “you run from bullets on a regular basis and you can’t take a few cuts?

The Eds didn’t hear that, thinking instead there was a lamentful silence between the two strangers. Ed was still silent, fascinated by this man who he would have swore looked just like Eddy, and Eddy himself was still trying to make heads or tails of whether these two were friendly or fiend-ly. Double-D, meanwhile, was trying to assess this situation in the context of everything they’d been through that morning.

“Rob, stop squeezing your hands, you’re just drawing more blood out,” Little John insisted as he continued trying to account for the damage. Before Robin could answer, however, there was a voice the two of them had never heard.

“E-excuse me, Mister… ‘Rob,’ is it?”

Robin perked up and leaned back toward the van. “Did someone say my name?”

“Y-yes, I do apologize, we couldn’t help but overhear your conversations, and we picked up on recurring names along the way. B-b-but, uh, more to the point: are you in need of first aid assistance?”

Double-D, what  are you doing!?” whispered Eddy.

I don’t want to take Eddy’s long-lost cousin to the doctor, Double-D! The doctor is scary and his lollipops taste like apricots!” whispered Ed.

“Oh, no thank you, I don’t think we need any help, young man, we -- aah! -- we’ve some supplies in our--”

Robin!” barked Little John as silently as he could, “You just said you wanted to hide the weapons! The supplies are tied to my staff!

Oh, how will they even know it’s supposed to be a weapon?

Well if you draw attention to the staff, the bow’s right next to it! And they’ll wonder why our shit’s under their van when we just got here!

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that,” said Double-D.

“Er, uh…” Robin leaned back into the window and craned his neck to see around the headrest. “C-come to think of it, we’ve misplaced our medical kit, so if you have something that -- g’shah! -- something that could help, I’d much appreciate it!”

“You know what, Mr. Rob? For your comfort, I invite you to come to the back of the van. We’ll open the doors for you.”

What!?” gasped Eddy.

“Oh, that would be splendid, thank -- ghee-yah! -- thank you, my boy.”

This Robin fellow pulled his head out and disappeared toward the rear of the truck. Double-D took a deep breath as he stood, and he walked slowly toward the front of the van to maintain his footing on the waterbed mattress. Eddy thought Double-D was being paranoid when he stocked first-aid supplies in the van’s glove compartment just in case they’d ever need it, but now it was finally being made useful, and in what great timing as well. Double-D had worked his whole life to be a model citizen, student, and son, and now some unwitting misadventures with his associates had landed him an arrest warrant and likely a criminal record, possibly to be carried out by his maybe-good, maybe-evil uncle. If these men were dangerous, it was worth the risk to serve them, to do good as an act of penance for his misdeeds. The opportunity for redemption was well worth the price of any harm these strangers could inflict upon him. After all, he was prepared for death at any moment.

Double-D leaned over to the glove compartment, careful not to fall into the bed of glass shards on the seat cushion. He grabbed the little red-and-white pouch and made his way back to the rear doors. At this point, if there was no dangerous excitement to be had when those floodgates were opened, he would actually be kind of disappointed.

“Are you seriously going to help these guys?” Eddy interrogated in vexed disbelief.

“I’m going to try to be a good person, Eddy, and if you don’t wish to help me in that, then stay out of my way.”

Click, grind… squeeeeak.

“Thank you, good sir,” said the gentleman fox, “Pleasure to finally get a good look at you boys.”

Next to him was the bear the Eds had heard so much about, leaning sideways to be able to see into the back of the van. “Do him a favor and don’t read too much into that, alright?” Seeing his face work in conjunction with his voice did nothing to help the boys discern whether this bear was being dryly playful or coolly threatening.

Eddy had the most visceral reaction to seeing them. For one thing, there was another bit of strangeness about this Rob fellow’s appearance: he didn’t seem to have any ‘gloves.’ Not real winter-wear, of course, as it was damn-nigh the height of June, but rather the distinct discoloration around the hands and feet and tail sported by every fox Eddy had ever seen. Some, like those in Eddy’s family, had black gloves, others white, and some just a slightly lighter or darker shade than the rest of their coat, but this dude’s hands were just plain red -- bloodstains notwithstanding. Eddy would later make a mental note to try to see if this guy had anything going around his feet or tail, without being too weird or obvious that he was looking for demarcations in such odd places.

But never mind all of that: just as Eddy had feared when he saw him in the window, this guy was fucking huge. Granted, his shins were out of frame underneath the bumper, but Eddy could extrapolate that he was probably the tallest fox he’d ever seen in his entire life, and Eddy really didn’t want to see such a creature. Being cripplingly paranoid with height, Eddy knew four numbers: 3-foot-2, which was how tall his mom was, and which was the average height for a female adult red fox in the United States, and which was the bare-ass minimum Eddy would allow himself to be as an adult without blowing his brains out; 3-foot-4 was the average height for an adult male of his species; his brother was 3-7 or 3-8 and his dad was considered fox-tall at 3-foot-9 (a potential fifth relevant number Eddy knew was four feet even, which is what his brother and father put when prompted for their height on documents and such, since they assumed -- correctly -- that nobody would correct them, and that the taller mammals that ran everything couldn’t perceive a four inch difference from up on high). Eddy had done his research, because of course he did, and for that reason he also knew that red foxes were a species with a notably wide height range; but just as it didn’t comfort him knowing that there were some poor fucks out there who were shorter as adults than even him as a stunted teenager, he did not feel very self-confident in the presence of a man who surely must have been a head taller than Eddy’s own dad and brother.

And yet -- and yet -- here was this brown bear that this giant was hanging out with that paradoxically make the fox look tiny at the same time. While doing his research, Eddy had seen that bears were also on the list of species with a wide range of plausible adult heights, and this “Little John” was certainly not the tallest specimen Eddy had seen or heard of, but just by eyeballing him, Eddy could guestimate that he was still significantly taller than Ed or Ed’s father (the last time Eddy checked, those two were roughly the same height, much to Mr. Browne’s chagrin). And yet again, this bear didn’t look particularly huge -- he didn’t look stretched out and his head didn’t look disproportionately small on his body. If not for the van for reference, Eddy might guess that this guy looked a foot or more shorter from far away. That, in turn, made the fox look even smaller, even though Eddy knew he wasn’t, so if you just focused your eyes on the fox and treated his bear bud as a background object, the fox would look tall again, but then you remember the bear isn’t just a piece of the scenery and that dangling elbow roughly level to the fox’s ear belongs to a sapient being and now you’re not so sure about anything...

Eddy’s brain processed all of these thoughts in the span of a few milliseconds. Between the paradoxical height, abnormal color scheme to his fur, and the supremely out-of-place British accent, Eddy wondered if he was actually having a horrible nightmare and these figurants were monsters, or perhaps he’d been gravely wounded by a cop’s bullet and these were demons come to torment him as he lay dying. But all Eddy really cared about was that he wouldn’t have to stand next to this Englishman and find out how he measured up. He’d rather it be a mystery.

Double-D, by virtue of not sharing Eddy’s deep-seated size paranoia, was able to take a much more empirical assessment of these guests, and draw educated conclusions accordingly. He did still note the above-average physical frames in front of him, but shrugged it off as a weird quirk, thinking that between these two and his friend-cum-foe uncle, whom he also recalled being notably taller than his parents, Double-D hadn’t witnessed this many incidentally freakishly tall characters in rapid succession since he finished reading that 1100-page novel over Spring Break by an author who evidently had even more of an obsession with tall and short people than Eddy did; but Double-D simply dismissed this as a bizarre coincidence, albeit one compounded by the fact that this same novel was also the source for his newfound fatalistic mantra.

He was more focused on the fact that the Englishman was rather well-dressed with a lincoln-green polo shirt, and while his American associate was not quite as buttoned-up, he did not look by any means disheveled in his forest-green jacket; he did notice the bear’s jacket had slightly-darker spots that suggested the letters “J”, “E”, “T”, and “S” were once emblazoned on the jacket, and Double-D barely recalled that to be the name of some sports team from New York (God help him if he could remember which sport they played), but he wrote this off as the bear either being reasonably thrifty and continuing to wear a fully-functional coat after its decals had fallen off, or perhaps he peeled them off himself if he shared Double-D’s disdain for sports.

A fox and a bear. Double-D was the first to make the connection. But curiously, he consciously told himself that these couldn’t be the two suspects being sought by law enforcement; this fox was simply too eloquent to be on the wrong side of the law, and this bear surely must be an upright fellow to make his gentlemanly acquaintance, and after all, why would a British national come all the way across the ocean just to turn to a life of crime?

Poor Double-D didn’t even notice that the letters expunged from the bear’s jacket, as if to allow its wearer to hide more easily among greenery and have fewer unique details about him when standing in a crowd, these details sitting right in front of his nose, were a major clue that his conclusion was off-base. If you told him that he also neglected to realize that green clothes would best blend into a forest’s leaves, Double-D might have just dropped dead from sheer embarrassment.

As for Ed, he only saw one logical response to laying eyes upon them.

“Eddy! It’s you and me from the future!”

“Oh, c’mon, Ed…” grumbled Eddy.

“Cool! You turn into one of those people with funny accents!”

Upon seeing such a chipper young man excited by his own imagination, Robin couldn’t help but smile. Little John would normally join in the joviality, but he was tired, frustrated and thoroughly confused, so he just looked unimpressed.

Gasp! But where’s Double-D!?” worried Ed.

“Oh, don’t you worry about me, Ed, I--”

Afraid for his friend, Ed grabbed him and hugged him tightly. “Poor Double-D! He was torn apart by mutant robots in the Mecha-Apocalypse! Huh! No! He was devoured by the reanimated cadaver of the Giant Peruvian Tapeworm from Hunger from Another Hemisphere! Nonono, I know what happened! His brain exploded from being too smart!

“Uh, Ed--” Double-D choked out, “you’re embarrassing me in front of our guests.” In the close contact, Double-D could almost feel the salt from Ed’s delusional tears sting in his own eyes.

Robin chuckled. “Heh, have we interrupted a special mome--?”

“You boys see the man’s hands bleeding all over the place, right?” Little John cut in.

“Oh!” Ed realized, “Double-D, you need to help heal Future Eddy!” He finally let go of the wolf and Double-D wheezed as his lungs regained full functionality. “Otherwise I’ll be all alone to fight the robo-mutants myself!”

“Of course, Ed,” Double-D conceded. He made a point to wait a few seconds before making eye contact with the adults for lack of wanting to have to answer for Ed’s antics. Instead he made his way over to the fox’s outheld hands and took a seat at on the edge of the bumper.

“May I examine the wounds, Mr. Rob?” Double-D didn’t grab the bleeding paws yet, but didn’t wait for an answer to start looking at them hands-free.

“Young man, I beg you not call me ‘Mr. Rob,’ ‘Robin’ is just fine.” He gave a playful glance up at Little John. “Or just ‘Rob’ if you really can’t be bothered with a second syllable.” Little John didn’t even acknowledge that Robin said that. “And yes, do with them as you must.”

“Oh, but I would feel so insolent if I were to address an adult by their given name.” Double-D grabbed the paws in his face and looked at the depth and frequency of cuts.

“Well then, you were raised well. But luckily for you, my given name is actually Robert; ‘Robin’ was a family nickname that everybody prefered; I often wonder if my parents had buyers’ remorse with the name they bestowed on me. ‘Robin’ actually started out as an nickname for ‘Robert,’ did you know?”

“Is that so? How intriguing!” Double-D would have thought it incredibly rude to point out that he did, in fact, already know that.

Robin’s a girls’ name, but okay,” muttered a cynical Eddy, but nobody had anything to say to that, so they all acted like he said nothing at all. Eddy was still glad he said it, however, as he felt it legitimized a leg up he had on this tall guy.

“Now, Mister, uh…” Double-D struggled for the correct title.

“My good man, if you absolutely insist, you can call me Mr. Hood.”

Little John nudged Robin in annoyance. “Jeez, Rob, just hand him a copy of your life’s memoirs, it might save us some time.”

Eddy, who was trying really hard not to focus on his boiling jealousy, found himself agreeing with that statement. He was liking this Little John guy’s responses to everything.

“Splendid, Mr. Hood,” Double-D continued. “Now, it seems that your cuts are not too deep at all, but they are quite numerous, so common adhesive strips likely would not get the job done. With your permission, may I apply some gauze and bandages?”

“Be my guest!”

As Double-D went searching in his pouch for the relevant supplies, Robin made a point to exchange friendly smiles with the other two boys, who were being incredibly quiet in all this. He decided that if he was going to be a guest in their space, and ultimate ask if they could borrow this space, that he might as well try to make the atmosphere more amicable.

“So unless my ears deceive me,” ventured Robin, “I’m the guest of both an ‘Ed’ and an ‘Eddy’? Both short for ‘Edward,’ I presume?”

Ed was still reeling in the presence of future iterations of himself and his buddy, while Eddy’s mind was halfway to elsewhere trying not to perish in a spiraling hole of self-pity.

“Uh… yeah, that’s right,” Eddy coughed out.

“A fine English name! And my caretaker, I hear they call you ‘Double-D’. What might that stand for?”

“I’ll bet a quarter it’s something boring like ‘David Daniel’,” Little John offered. This was another sentence from the adult bear that the young fox was intrigued by.

‘Actually, it’s also short for ‘Edward,’ but with three d’s, with two consecutively after the initial E; it’s an old family tradition from my mother’s side,” Double-D clarified.

“Heh, pay up,” Eddy chuckled nervously. The bear returned the weak chuckle but showed no indication of actually producing currency. Eddy was starting to have second thoughts about warming up to this guy.

“Now, Mr. Hood, is it alright if I apply some hydrogen peroxide to reduce the risk of infection?”

“Surely.” As Double-D poured some antiseptic onto a cotton ball, Robin went to further bridge the gap. “So I’m in the presence of three young men all named Edward, am I? I wasn’t going to mention this, but--”

Double-D applied the peroxide to the cuts, swabbing liberally to spread the moisture as well as to mop up the blood. Robin seethed and tried not to seem to emasculated by the penetrating stinging.

Hhhhhhhhh!... As I was saying, I should have no problem remembering your names, since Edward’s my middle name as well! Funny how things work out!”

“Hm. Really!” Double-D said, genuinely fascinated by this coincidence, assuming that it wasn’t all just a ruse to gain their trust.

“And our friend Little John over here is just barely locked out of our club; his mid-- Hhhhh!” Robin hissed as Double-D started cleaning the other hand with a fresh cotton swab.

“For the record, Rob, I didn’t consent to you airing out all my personal details,” Little John grumbled.

“Why, what on earth are you talking about, John Edmund Little?” Robin chuckled.

“Eddy, can you write those names down?” Ed asked. “We need to make sure we don’t mess up our future selves when we change our names, or we might irreparably destroy the future!”

Eddy just shot him a dirty look; it was the best he could do, since he probably couldn’t get a word out from the embarrassment of not knowing what irreparably meant if even Ed did.

Robin chuckled affably again, and not just to be polite; he was seriously getting a kick out of watching these kids and their bizarre dynamics. “Well, if you didn’t know our names before now, there will be little need for you to know them them after we part. This will all just be a pleasant encounter.” But someone among them perceived some arrogance in that statement, and felt the need to challenge it.

“Wait,” Eddy spoke up, “why would we already know your names? Are you famous or something?”

“Er… in some circles, perhaps. But aren’t we all?”

“So Mr. Robert Edward Hood, is it?” asked Double-D as he unwound the spool of bandages. “Well! For history’s sake, it’s probably a good thing your last name isn’t Lee!”

“Now why would it be a good thing that that isn’t my last name?” Robin asked. Hearing this, Double-D tried to hide a look of disappointment on his face; this gentleman had proven himself to be so learned before this bump in the road, and Double-D shamefully confessed to himself that this passing moment of fallibility was deflating his opinion of the stranger.

Little John nudged Robin again and stood up straight so the boys couldn’t read his lips above the doorway. “There’s no way you would have passed that citizenship test,” he whispered. Robin was puzzled for a second, but he ultimately got the reference.

Robin turned back to Double-D, who was wrapping up the fox’s left paw. Robin looked past him and saw an ironing board along the side of the mattress and some generators and extension cords pushed toward the front, and figured there was no time like the present to pop the relevant question.

“So you had these medical supplies in the van ready to go. May I ask, do you boys live here? Are you in need of any help?”

Eddy looked confused; Double-D looked embarrassed; Ed looked at a fly crawling on the wall.

“Uh--” Double-D sputtered, “Why, I--”

“Oh, Christ, no, we don’t live here!” said Eddy, “This is just a place we hang out sometimes. Do we look like we’re homeless to you?”

Robin admired the kid’s spunk but didn’t care for his snark. “Oh, I do apologize if it seemed like I was making assumptions; between this and the power source, I was a bit thrown-off.”

“‘Power source,’ what now?” Little John bent over further to get a good look at the interior; from his high angle of view, he hadn’t been able to see much deeper into the van past the boys.

“Oh, that’s just for, uh…” Double-D squirmed as he conjured up a worthy fib. “...um, for diversionary activities! Yes!”

Robin was debating whether he could mine any relevant information from asking what kind of activities?, but Eddy had a more urgent question.

“Hey! Are you guys cops or something!?” Eddy’s fear of getting busted on the first day of his new operation was no match for the desire to defy the ones who dared suggest that he, Eddy the Inevitable Future Millionaire, were a homeless person.

“Eddy!” barked an embarrassed Double-D.

“I beg your pardon?” demanded an offended Little John.

Robin was also taken aback by the outburst, but he was certain that cooler heads would prevail, so he forced another chuckle out. “Oh, my lad, -- Eddy, is it? -- I wouldn’t have moved across the ocean just to join a police force.”

“Wait, where’re you from that’s across the ocean? I thought you were British or something.”

Robin couldn’t even pretend to be amused by that one. He shot Little John an unimpressed look, which John returned with a look of Hey, this kid doesn’t represent me. Double-D forced himself to focus more closely on wrapping up the injured paw, trying desperately to disappear in plain sight.

“Why, do you got sumpthin’ to hide, kid?” asked Little John.

“Uh-- no!” coughed Eddy.

“Y-you’ll have to forgive Eddy, Mister, um, Little, is it? He’s, uh, just… very private about his procection. D’no! I mean… protective about his privacy.”

“I’ll say,” mumbled Little John; he just wanted to go to bed at this point. “Can we cut to the chase?”

“The chase?” pressed Eddy, “What chase?”

“Did you want to play tag!?” Ed proposed, then leaned over to the older bear and laid a hand on his forearm. “Tag! You’re--!”

“Nope,” was all Little John replied, cowing Ed into retreating and acting like their exchange never happened..

“What Little John means is--” started Robin, but Little John wasn’t in any mood to have anybody speak on his behalf.

“Can we borrow this place for a few nights?” Little John spat. “...And days?”

“You really must excuse Little John; he’s really usually much more affable than this when things are going well. But right now? Things are all but well at the moment,” Robin took the reins again and tried to exercise his charm for some damage control. “You see, we -- oh, I don’t want to upset you with our problems, but -- our apartment caught fire, and--”

“Oh, my, I’m so sorry to hear that!” Double-D interjected.

“You two live together?” Eddy asked in a way that sounded more malicious than genuinely confused.

“Ah, yes, it’s not the greatest arrangement, but we are struggling actors, trying to cut our teeth in the Nottingham theatre scene so we can work our way up to Hollywood one day.”

“Yeah, so you don’t have to worry about us defiling your personal space, kid,” Little John said with eyes locked on Eddy, “if that is what you were asking.”

Eddy tried his best not to look intimidated.

“So imagine our dejection when our microwave caught fire last night while we were cooking dinner!” Robin continued. “Silly me, I left a shard of aluminium foil on the edge of the bowl! The fire wasn’t too bad, and we were very lucky that most of our possessions were unharmed, but the damage was done and our landlord said it would be a few days until our flat would be liveable again. And broke as we are, we can’t just go to a hotel and rent a room. So we went looking for some cheap real estate to tide us over.”

“Oh, my,” Double-D repeated, as it was the politest, most inoffensive response he knew. “That sounds downright dreadful! What a poor streak of fortune!”

“So you live in the city, and now you’re looking for a place to stay in a junkyard in the suburbs?” Eddy was skeptical.

“We--”

It was a long night,” Little John growled. Looking at Eddy again, that certainly got the point across.

“Indeed it was,” finished Robin, “and so we were hoping we could seek shelter in this old van, and then we met you fine lads. We were going to leave it be since we thought this was your own dwelling, but if you have other homes to go back to, I’ll admit, we’re curious if we could work something out.” He was looking right into Double-D’s eyes, trying to appeal to the obvious smart one in the group, and Double-D looked back into the eyes of the master of bullshitting extemporaneously, from whom he could stand to learn a few lessons.

“Are we gonna have a sleepover!?” ventured Ed.

“Shit, works for me,” said Little John.

“Oh, get the fuck outta here!” hollered Eddy. “We’ve been taking care of this old rustbox for, what? Two years now? Just like it was a second home. This is our house! Finders, keepers; losers, get lost!”

“The little shit’s got moxie, I’ll give him that,” mumbled Little John, who was fading fast.

“Easy for you to say, Mister Fucking Beluga Whale! You wouldn’t last two days if you were my size!”

A couple of mispronounced syllables in that phrase rattled some unpleasant memories in Little John, but they were so deeply embedded in that sentence that even Robin didn’t pick up on them. Little John really wanted to pick this kid up and dropkick him to the moon, but he knew that Robin would never see him as a good man again if he took out his frustrations on a child, so he came up with the most composed and concise reply he could think of:

You…. don’t know shit… about my life.”

“Oh, you really must pardon my pal Johnny, he really is not being himself today,” Robin jumped in. “I only wish you could have met us when we were fully rested so you could see the man I know as almost like a brother to me.”

“You stay out of this, Rob.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Hood, I’ve not seen him instigating any conflict here,” Double-D reassured. “If anything, I’d ask if you were interested in a trade for Eddy!”

“You son of a bitch, Double-D! Back me up!”

“Now, while my fellow foxes might chastise me for abandoning one of our own,” Robin said, “I would still be interested in a negotiation. We can’t afford a hotel room, but we can probably afford to pay you a little something for your hospitality.”

A shockwave rang out through the air, one that only Eddy could perceive.

Pay?

“Oh, I do believe you’ve just said one of Eddy’s favorite words!” remarked Double-D.

“Hm. Is that so?” Robin was starting to have second thoughts about the other fox -- and the other two boys for associating with him. But he wasn’t writing them off just yet.

“What can I say? I’m a fan of economics,” Eddy insisted slyly.

“Ah, macro- or micro-?” Robin quizzed him playfully.

“Uh… what?”

“Mr. Hood, please disregard him,” Double-D implored of the Englishman, “He’s not been on his best behavior today, and he doesn’t deserve any type of financial reward for his conduct.”

“Double-D, what the hell are you talking about!?”

“I’m trying to do the right thing, Eddy.”

“And I admire your noble quest to do what you think is right, but are you certain we can’t give you anything?” Robin turned to Little John, whose head was invisible above the roof of the van. “Little John, don’t you have twenty dollars on you?”

“TWENTY FUCKING DOLLARS!?” Eddy screamed at the top of his lungs.

Little John wasn’t responding. Robin nudged his arm while looking up and realized he couldn’t see his head. “Joh-Johnny? You alright, lad?”

“Hm?” Little John woke up groggily. Restraining himself toward Eddy had drained his remaining energy and he had promptly rested his chin on the roof of the van and fell asleep.

“Johnny, do you have a twenty spot on you?”

Elsewhere, Eddy was drowning in his own saliva.

“Hm. Oh, yeah. Why?”

“Because we’re negotiating,” -- a wink in the eye on the side of his head which the Eds couldn’t see -- “with our friend Eddy for room and board.”

“Oh, sure, fine by me,” Little John said sloppily as he fished in his jacket pocket and produced a Jackson.

Money!” cried out the only one of the five who could be reasonably expected to cry that out.

Eddy went for the piece of paper in Little John’s hand, but the bear boredly held it up to the roof, out of Eddy’s reach. The tiny fox jumped on the edge of the water bed trying to get the leverage to reach the outheld dollar, whimpering in money-lust the whole time, until after a half a dozen bounces he arced too far forward and fell out of the van between Little John and Robin, landing in the dirt with a thump.

“I insist,” insisted Double-D, “keep the money. After hearing what you’ve been through, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing I extorted money out of you in exchange for basic decency. I only hope this humble abode sufficiently suits your needs.”

“Please don’t say ‘sleep,’” Little John murmured lazily, eyes struggling to stay open. Then they burst open with the feeling of an unwelcome touch and a now-familiar sound of whimpering. “He-hey! Get the hell off me, kid!”

Eddy was trying to do the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest during an earthquake as he clambered up the squirming bear, trying to get the legal tender at the end of his arm.

“Eddy, get down from there!” scolded Double-D.

“You have to respect his resilience,” noted Robin.

Little John wiggled violently and Eddy lost his footing; another few shakes and he was splayed on the ground again.

“Goddamn, kid....” Little John said incredulously.

“Aw, c’mon!” Eddy growled as soon as he got back up. “I’m not giving up my property without proper reimbursement!”

“Eddy, we wouldn’t be able to split twenty dollars three ways anyway.”

“Sure you can! Ten, ten, and fifteen! Now cough up the dough!”

“Oh--! Mr. Hood, you’ll have to trust me that Eddy is not an accurate representation of the average product of the American schooling system!”

“It’s quite alright, my boy,” Robin reassured. Neither of them believed what Double-D said.

“My money!” Eddy screamed while pounding on the ground on which he sat, looking not unlike a toddler in more ways than usual.

“Mr. Hood, Mr. Little, you’re going to have to forgive my two associates for leaving without saying goodbye.” With that, Double-D pulled out the ace up his sleeve. He stepped out of the van and took a spot next to Robin to clear the exit. “Oh, Ed? Isn’t there a movie marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel this afternoon?”

Ed perked up. “Movie marathon?”

“And I’m sure that Eddy would hate to miss it, too!”

“Uh… Double-D?” Eddy whimpered.

Monster movies!” Ed hollered as he sat up straight from his semi-reclining position -- and promptly hit his head on the roof of the van. Undeterred, he twisted himself out of the van, forced his way past Double-D and the strangers, picked up Eddy, threw him over his shoulder, and ran off toward home.

“Ed!” Eddy shrieked, “There’s a marathon on every weekend! Calm down! Double-D, don’t you want jawbreakers!?”

Ed screeched to a halt. “Wait. Something is missing.” Ed turned back to the three by the van. “Double-D, aren’t you coming, too?”

“I’ll be right behind you, Ed! I’m just seeing off our new friends!”

“OKAY!” Ed cheered as he ran off. “More monster movie for Ed and Eddy!”

Ed!” cried Eddy. And then they were gone.

The other three just stood there watching, horrified, amused, and astounded.

“...Welp!” Little John broke the silence. “Thanks for the room! G’night!” He offered a two-finger temple salute before starting to crawl into the van.

“Little John, we haven’t said our goodbyes yet!” Robin corrected.

“Well, for fuck’s sakes, Mom, aren’t you tired, too?” Little John backed out and took a seat on the dirt, leaning lazily against the van. He still towered over the fox and the wolf from his seated position.

“Absolutely exhausted,” Robin clarified and turned to the young wolf, whom all three found was curiously still a solid few inches taller than Robin. “Eddward, I cannot thank you enough for your help. Little John and I are indebted to you. We may move some of your stuff around for comfort’s sake, but I assure you, this van will be as pristine as you left it.”

“And we’ll be gone as soon as we have somewhere else to go,” Little John added, “With any luck, we might be gone by morning.”

“Oh, good sirs, it’s a pleasure to be able to aid you in your time of need. If you’d like, I can stop by periodically to check in on how you’re doing. Perhaps I can provide you with some supplies. Some toiletries, perhaps?”

“Eddward, you needn’t worry about us. We’ve been through tougher hardships than this; we’ll be just fine.”

“Oh, but I insist! Can I at least fetch you some hand sanitizer? Or perhaps I can take down the number of your landlord and call to ask for updates on the situation of the--?”

“Eddward, Eddward, Eddward. You’ve assisted us in being able to live our lives; now we ask that you not let us impede you in living yours. Would you do that for us?”

Double-D thought for a moment. “Well, Mr. Hood, I offered our place to you because I wanted to do the right thing… I suppose heeding your well-wishing would be the next logical step toward that end.”

“Attaboy, lad! I hope your parents know they raised a good boy.”

Double-D’s cheeks grew hot with this affirmation of his goodness.

“Mr. Hood, it’s been a pleasure to meet you and I certainly do hope to see you again before you depart. And to you, Mister--” Double-D glanced at Little John dozing against the van. “Oh, he’s fallen asleep again.”

“Just because my eyes are closed and I’m not talking or moving doesn’t mean I’m asleep,” Little John corrected.

“Oh! My apologies, Mr. Little!”

“No, kid, listen… Jesus, I-- I’m sorry I’ve been such a… well, a bear to you and your friends, but seriously, I’m really fucking tired. But you helped us out big here, kid. I appreciate it. Hey,” Little John said as he placed a big paw on Double-D’s shoulder. “You seem like a good guy. Saying you wanna do what’s right. I like that. Don’t lose that.” Then he said something that he couldn’t decide if it would be nice to say or just odd, but he decided to say it anyway on the grounds that he didn’t know if he’d ever get a chance to say it again. “You kinda remind me of myself when I was your age… except you seem a lot fucking smarter.”

“Well it seems that Little John’s blabbering in his fatigue, so maybe it really is best we finally retire for the night,” Robin said, the fatigue finally starting to get to him as well. “...or, the day, rather. And it seems like you’d best be getting back to your friends. Who knows where they’ll wind up without their leader?”

Leader? Double-D’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when he heard that. He had fancied himself many things, but this was never among them. And he was liking the idea of it.

“Uh-- yes, sir, Mr. Hood! I won’t let you down!” And off he went to seek his fortune as a leader of men. Robin and John watched with tired smiles as he ran off until he was out of sight.

“Jesus fuck, I’m going to sleep now,” Little John bellowed as soon as the strange young wolf was gone, and started crawling back into the van..

“Johnny, if you bring out their generators and such, I’ll move them around the side.”

“You’re lucky I don’t want to breathe in gasoline fumes,” John grumbled as he started extracting the goods.

“And after that, can you retrieve our weapons and put them in the front seat?”

“I suppose I could.”

“And can you sweep the glass out of there while you’re in the neighborhood?”

“Robin, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Little John got the obstacles out and went around the side to reach for the bow, arrow, staff and supplies under the van.

“Those kids were weird,” Little John noted.

“I can’t disagree, but they had their charms. But I’m glad we didn’t give them the money. The look of greed in that fox lad’s eyes told me he wouldn’t be spending it in a worthwhile way. But I could be wrong.”

“Hey, I was asleep for half of that,” Little John said from under the vehicle. “And you’ve used the word ‘lad’ more today than I’ve heard from you in years. I thought I did a good enough job infecting you with the Americanism!”

“Honestly, John, I think I was forcing it, especially since it seemed to be winning over that wolf boy. He clearly equated my accent and dialect to intelligence, regardless of how much slang I used.”

Little John barely heard half of that, partially because his hearing was muffled, and partially because he was distracted by something he found under the van that didn’t belong to either of them, but which he had been thinking they could use. “Oh, hello…”

“What was that?”

“Erm-- I was just thinking, could that wolf kid ever start a sentence without ‘oh’? Was he even capable of it?”

“I was thinking more about that bear that really did seem to think that we were him and his friend from the future. And you thought poor Martin had issues…” Robin’s voice seemed to have a different auditory quality to it now, as if coming from a different place.

Little John was listening just enough to carry the conversation as he inspected his treasure. “Martin wasn’t talking, whereas this kid was using big words out of nowhere every so often. He’s definitely got something going on, but he’s not retarded.” The identification number was still intact, so he’d have to do something about that, and while he didn’t want to make a noise by unloading the cartridge, he could estimate from the weight that it was probably loaded. But with any luck, he’d never need to find out.

“I never said he was, now did I?”

“Yeah, well you insinuated it.” Little John opened the passenger’s side door to put his new security blanket in the glove compartment. “Hey, you’re already laying down!?”

“I needed to stake my claim, or your big arse would have bumped me out!”

Little John very quietly opened the glove box and put the piece inside. “Haven’t you Brits staked your claim on enough?”

“Your Manifest Destiny has nothing on the English Empire!”

He needed something to cover it with, just in case. “Hey, whatever happened to that first-aid pouch thing?”

“Oh, of course!” Robin tossed it over the front seats without looking and it smacked off the dashboard and landed on the glass-covered seat. “There ya go!”

“Hey, c’mon, Rob, it landed right in the glass!”

“Well, there’re Band-Aids in there if you cut yourself!”

Little John used the pouch to sweep as much glass as he could out of the seat and off the floor out of the van. “We ought to at least put a plastic bag over this window to repay them.”

“Good idea! First thing in the morning… or the evening!”

Sweep, sweep, sweep.

“Now you got me thinking about if those kids were our past selves.”

“In your timeline, do I become English later in life, or am I just always American?”

“I mean, honestly, a little part of me is thinking about how I fucking wish I was that kid’s size at his age. Hell, I didn’t even catch their ages, and I know I wasn’t his size at his age. That guy’s gonna be fucking huge. And that fox would probably kill to be as tall as you.”

“It really is a little part of you that’s thinking about this, isn’t it?”

“Oh, shut up. But more than that, I’m thinking… what if we were friends when we were kids? Ignore the transatlantic shit; really, would we stick together as adults? Would we be doing… this?”

“I sure hope we’d stick together. But who would our wolf friend be?”

“Fuck, I dunno, Woodland?”

Heh. Don’t make me laugh, Little John. I don’t have the energy.”

“Well, then, we’d be three Eds, too, now wouldn’t we be?” Little John got all the glass out as he could and put the first-aid pouch in the glove compartment, trying to conceal the contraband.

“That is a strange coincidence, but it is a rather common name.”

“Not as much as it was in our parents’ generation. And it definitely ain’t as common as John or Robert. But I digress…” Little John slammed the door and made his way to the rear doors, ready to collapse. “Move over,” he said as he opened the gateway to the land of slumber.

“I’ll be telling you the same thing in five minutes.”

Little John crawled in, surprised by the surface of the mattress. “Hey, I didn’t know this was a waterbed! This is cool! These went out of style over a decade ago! I’ve never actually been on one of these!”

“And you may never have if you didn’t choose this life. Just don’t pop it.”

The waterbed shifted under Little John’s weight as he made his way in. “You’re gonna have to close the doors, Rob; I don’t think there’s enough space for me to turn around and reach them.”

Robin got up and stumbled over to the doors to close them. “Little John, the world doesn’t have enough space for you.”

“Preferable to the opposite problem. I say this as an expert authority.” Little John found a comfortable spot and collapsed. “Alright, goodnight.”

With the doors closed, Robin turned and found that his original spot had indeed been annexed by the grizzly, so he just collapsed in his place and closed his eyes. He had enough energy for one more remark: “You know, between you and I, we really do bicker like an old married couple sometimes.”

Robin could barely hear Little John’s muttered response: “Heh, I guess we might as well adopt three kids.”

*A.N.* Not much to say besides tell me whatcha think. I appreciate ya. -D

 

Chapter Text

  1. “Walk of Shame”

If there was one thing about his size Eddy couldn’t complain about, it was his ability to escape through small openings, like Ed’s basement-bedroom window. He would have just waltzed out the front door without a care, but he had been a prisoner in Ed’s clutches. It wasn’t the first time that the cable channel had strained the relations between them.

Sometime during the spring, the channel had begun airing marathons of campy old horror and sci-fi movies every Saturday from 9 to 9 Eastern and Pacific, 8 to 8 Central and Mountain. From the moment Ed heard the announcement, a new tradition began with an almost religious fervor, and Ed effectively was robbed of one-seventh of his week, every week. Eddy and Double-D had had to work around this schedule to interact with him, because they had absolutely no interest in spending twelve hours of their weekend watching films that were so bad that they genuinely couldn’t discern which ones were trying to be taken seriously and which ones were going for an offbeat sense of humor (and which ones didn’t know themselves which they were trying to be), all the while watching their friend twitch and squirm and quiver with visceral reactions to the trash he was watching, rolling in his seat like he was possessed by a demon with no real goals for what to do with its new corporeal body but to mess with it. If it was hard to watch the movies, it was even harder to watch Ed watch them, so Eddy and Double-D always declined Ed’s invitation to come over and bear witness to what Ed would surely regard as the highest of high art.

Eddy, in turn, had specifically asked Ed if he was okay choosing movies over his friends, and Ed answered in his indirect way that he wanted to make time for both, but he could only make a specific interval of time for his movies, which outside of the context of Ed’s terrible addiction may have seemed like a rather cogent answer. But Eddy just saw this as more evidence that the trio was starting to become unwound.

After a particularly rough Memorial Day weekend wherein the channel played old B-movies for sixty consecutive hours (of which Ed managed to stay awake and attentive for fifty-seven), they cut the weekly marathon because quite frankly it was a strange programming decision that was destined to fail from the get-go. Ed was distraught that first Saturday in June on that last weekend of the school year, and Eddy was relieved that this would bring Ed back into the fold and not interrupt his big Plan for the summer, but then it was announced that the channel had brought the block back on for a once-monthly routine on the second Saturday of the month, noon to six; everything in moderation, after all. But for all of Ed’s excitement at the return of his monster movie marathon, the fatigue of the early morning scrambled his brain, and his dire need to ingest the films was unwittingly neglected until Double-D was so kind as to remind him of what Eddy had been consciously trying not to remind him.

So it was that Eddy was involuntarily subjected to the better part of what was surely some strange old film, although Eddy couldn’t have told you much about its plot since he was basically being compulsively and unconsciously manhandled by an auto-gesticulating Ed every forty-five seconds for a decent hour and fifteen minutes, until finally Ed had to let Eddy go so he could relieve himself after drinking an entire two-liter of cola. Eddy made his escape and resolved not to think any more about what bizarre goings-on occured in that basement. After all, he had plenty else to think about.

If one were to ask Eddy in that moment whether he was more pissed about Double-D’s uncle stealing key supplies for his Plan or some random British guy showing up and presenting himself as a living embodiment of everything Eddy wished he could be physically, intellectually and charismatically, Eddy would probably have just jumped at this hypothetical interrogator and clawed his face out, all the while screaming many syllables but not saying a word. It had been a long day and he wanted it to be over, and he was intending to go back to bed as soon as he got home so that it would all end faster, preferably without any impromptu interviewing between now and then. Of course, between his racing mind and his raging fatigue, it could go either way if he were to not be able to sleep for hours, or if he were to pass out for several calendar days.

Ed’s house was only two doors down from Eddy’s, a journey made even shorter if one were to disregard the curved sidewalk around the bell of the cul-de-sac and just walk straight across the asphalt. But it was still long enough for Eddy to stew in a bitter mix of anger and depression, and seeing the other neighborhood youths out and about enjoying this sunny Saturday in June did nothing to help assuage his frustration.

Immediately to the right of Ed’s house was the house where Jimmy (“The Poor, Tortured Soul”) Hutchinson lived as a rare only child in a family of rabbits. Or maybe they were hares; Eddy didn’t care to remember. Jimmy was planting flowers with his platonic gal-pal, Sarah, Ed’s baby sister who looked much more like their parents than Ed did with her strawberry-blonde fur; Sarah also seemed to have inherited both Mrs. Browne’s passive aggression and Mr. Browne’s active aggression. But of course, quickness to anger was a prevailing stereotype of their species, begging the question of whether Ed was unnaturally placid for both his species and his family, or if his brain was just so low-functioning that he couldn’t access that side of himself except under extreme duress (then again, with regards to other stereotypes of grizzlies being gluttonous, unhygienic and downright dumb, Ed certainly had those boxes checked, so outside observers like Eddy had to consider that perhaps it was the rest of his family who were the weird ones). Suffice it to say that contemplative thoughts about Sarah’s hot-headed temper and Jimmy’s insistence that he be protected from the world at all times were inspired by the dirty looks that they gave Eddy when he regarded them.

Therefore he averted his gaze and looked straight ahead, where he saw Johnny “Two-by-Four” Holden, the weird big-headed koala kid who hung out with an imaginary friend in the form of a plank of wood which was (rather unimaginatively) named Plank. Johnny was fishing in the open manhole cover in the middle of the circle, and another rod was set up so that Plank could fish too. Eddy often wondered if all the children of former hippies turned out like Johnny, and was glad that he himself was the son of two moderately successful salespeople and not two organic urban farmers. Actually, come to think of it, Eddy wondered if recreational substance use had something to do with how the fur on the top of Johnny’s head was so short and thin that he almost looked bald.

“Hey, Eddy!” Johnny greeted him. “Plank almost caught a real whopper, but the slippery son of a gun got away!”

“Boy, Johnny, that really, uh… that really blows, huh?” Eddy thought it was curious that whenever Johnny said anything remarkable had happened to him and Plank, it was always Plank that had the remarkable thing occur to him. There was probably something about that that spoke volumes about Johnny’s warped psychology, but Eddy didn’t know what it was. He thought for a fleeting second that maybe if being an entrepreneur didn’t pan out, he should find a line of work where he could pose deep psychological questions but would have somebody else around to actually answer them. But Eddy would never need such a fallback plan, as he would never allow himself to quit.

In any case, Johnny didn’t say anything more to Eddy. Eddy couldn’t for the life of him get a clear read on that little freak. In a neighborhood where everybody hated the Eds, there had been some times where Johnny was nice to them when everybody else was ready to kill them, and other times when Johnny wanted to join in on killing them. Hell, among all his other issues, maybe the kid was bipolar too.

Past Johnny, Eddy saw the true workhorse himself, Rolf Schäfer, the Ambiguously Germanic Guy. In a rare moment of not being occupied in his backyard farm, Rolf was mowing the front yard of his house, which was directly across the street from Eddy’s. Eddy sometimes wondered what Rolf’s goals were for the rest of his life. The guy wouldn’t shut the hell up about how his ancestors had been shepherds in the Old Country, but the days of sheep working in serfdom were long past, and sharecropping wasn’t what it used to be, so now the Schäfer family needed the help of hired farmhands like Victor and Wilfrid to keep the operation running. Was Rolf just going to keep this suburban farm going as long as he could? Were Rolf’s parents even making enough to sustain what they had? Did Rolf even realize that there were avenues outside of agriculture?

Rolf reached the sidewalk and stopped his mower for a second to greet Eddy. “Hello, Fat-Tail-and-a-Thin-Wallet Ed-Boy!” the stallion waved. “Shall Rolf fetch his coin purse to purchase a bridge you would like to sell Rolf!?”

Eddy was disappointed when, seventeen milliseconds after the end of that sentence, he realized Rolf was being sarcastic. “Uhm-- Not today, Rolfie boy,” Eddy stammered. He wondered why Rolf didn’t just have Victor cut the grass, on the grounds that the goat would probably jump at the chance to take the grass clippings home to feed his family. Then Eddy wondered if that thought would sound racist if he said it out loud. Then he figured it was too late to un-think it regardless.

The last two he saw were the pair that broke his heart. It wasn’t so much that they were official now that was surprising, but that after all this time of their mutual attraction being the cul-de-sac’s worst-kept secret that they bothered making it official at all. At the corner, the bastard hyena Kevin Lafferty was chatting up the girl of his dreams (and Eddy’s dreams, and Ed and Double D’s dreams, as well as Johnny’s and probably Rolf’s and possibly even Jimmy’s dreams, plus the dreams of half the guys they knew from school and probably a few of the girls, too), the bobcat bombshell known simply as Nazz. Kevin half-sat-half-stood in the seat of his bike by the stop sign at Harris Street, and Nazz was standing there smiling and chuckling politely every so often at whatever unfunny shit Kevin was saying. Eddy might have been able to concede that they were a cute couple if he didn’t have personal experience with how much of a mean-spirited twat Kevin was. Eddy would simply never be happy for Nazz as long as she decided that Kevin was a suitable suitor. He wondered what she saw in him. Did every heterosexual female really harbor an unshakeable primitive attraction to men who were domineering, rebellious malcontents, compelling them to yearn for these browbeat bullies against their better judgment? Whether or not that was the truth or simply a bad stereotype, it certainly applied to some women out in the big wide world, and Eddy had a sneaking suspicion that Nazz was one of them. If that were the case, and Nazz was driven toward this piece of dick-cheese -- whom she had personally witnessed engage in aggressive and antisocial behavior on several dozen occasions and had gone as far as to personally admonish him for it many of those times -- by forces beyond her control, then Eddy would almost go as far as to say he felt bad for her. But if she had consciously chosen Kevin as a significant other despite bearing witness to all of the horrific shit he’d done, then he would feel relieved, because evidently there would be no reality where Eddy and Nazz have a healthy future together. Or maybe she just hated short guys.

Kevin saw Eddy walk to toward the driveway of his house, which was next to Kevin’s own. Nazz saw Kevin focus on something past her and turned to see Eddy as well. Kevin gave a steady glare to the fox he regarded as the single most annoying creature to ever walk the planet; Nazz maintained her friendly smile and waved at Eddy. She was not evil, at least not yet.

Eddy faked a smile and waved back to be polite to Nazz, even though he was sure that Kevin wouldn’t take it well. Eddy fully expected Kevin to give him the finger or to very loudly call him a dork, but instead he just kept glaring, his eyes following Eddy until he was at his stoop. Nazz said something to Kevin and Kevin turned back to Nazz, and Eddy turned his back on both of them, opened his door and walked inside.

He was alone. Saturday was a busy work day for his parents. At present, his father was sweating in the sun in the lot of a used-car dealership and his mother was shivering in one of the many overly-air-conditioned boutique stores in the luxury mall where Lemon Brook met the coast. There was a reason why Terry and Toni never discouraged their sons from trying to make money by any means necessary.

But -- while Eddy would never say this to their faces -- he didn’t much envy his parents’ sales skills as much as he did his brother’s, because his parents may have been successful, but they weren’t gifted at their trade. His brother was gifted at selling stuff. It wasn’t just that his parents weren’t as rich as Eddy would like to be himself, because his brother certainly wasn’t either. His brother was barely scraping by on the West Coast or wherever he was by now. But his brother had gotten successful enough at an early age to move out at seventeen and bounce around the country in the years since, answering to nobody but himself. Terry and Toni were good enough at their craft, but still, here they were, living in a middle-class suburb with bosses to answer to. Their elder son was simply a huckster prodigy, and he probably still had plenty of time to become a millionaire by thirty if he could just restructure his business model and stop being so complacent with breaking even. It was weird, because there was a time in his youth that Eddy’s brother had actually been dead-set on defying the vulpine stereotype and living on the straight and narrow, but then something-something happened with some shitbag kids -- Eddy had never known exactly what; he had only ever heard bits and pieces of the story, which occured when Eddy was a baby and their family was still living in the city -- after which his brother said fuck it, the life of a shifty scammer fox was the life for him. Eddy thought it was probably actually a good thing that happened, otherwise his brother would never have found his true calling in life. But this was something he’d never say to his brother’s face -- along with “Hey, bro, let’s go into business together,” and “Hey, bro, maybe other people think that tie makes you look more professional, but I know your secret, and you’ve completely failed at your goal of popularizing ties as a part of casual wear, and to me you look like a fucking tool.” Eddy still wanted to collapse in bed, but first he had to visit a certain room of the house.

What drove them?

That’s what he was wondering as he was alone with his thoughts. All those kids outside, lackadaisically enjoying the first day of what was sure to be one of their last summer breaks: How could they just waste their time like that? Had they no sense of urgency? Did they fundamentally misunderstand the progression of linear time? Were they really okay with waiting until they were older to get ahead in life?

It was conflicting: when he laid eyes upon them, he didn’t see children anymore. He saw them as very young adults with adult needs and demands, like fake IDs so they could acquire adult beverages and other adult accessories and engage in adult activities, all so that they may feel what it’s like to be an adult, even if nobody was convinced of their maturity except themselves and the company they kept. And yet they surely couldn’t be adults because they had no apparent appetite for success. What were these creatures who surrounded him?

From where he sat, he could close his eyes and faintly hear the sounds of the adolescents’ merrymaking outside. He could visualize them running through the same repertoire of insipid, hedonistic time-wasting activities as time sped up and they all aged until they disintegrated into viscous mounds of pus and bones and viscera and dust. He thought he was nearly going to vomit from the vision of it.

Look at ‘em: unbeholden to the allure of silver-gray coins and unmoved by the siren song of sickly-green paper. Surely they couldn’t simply be ignorant of its joys and beauty; if they were, they wouldn’t be so hesitant to part with the money they already had. How were they content with some without having an insatiable yearning for more? Would they live and die this way? Could he save them? Should he want to? After all, this way there was less competition for him and his ventures. But maybe if they were more sympathetic to his cause, they wouldn’t be such tough customers. Eddy knew that many would pity him for what seemed to be an unhealthy obsession, but he quite frankly thought that the many were wrong.

Oh, and those goddamn goons, the wolf and the bear. They didn’t even like money for its own merits, they just wanted what money could buy. Yes, they appreciated it enough to help him in his exploits to gather it, inasmuch as they wanted a cut, but they were almost as bad as the other denizens of the cul-de-sac. It wasn’t so much that Ed and Double-D were a step above the other kids as much as there was a slight ridge in the floor and the two of them were on the imperceptibly-higher side of it. And the both of them could stand to either prove their loyalty or buzz off and stop teasing him.

Double D. Oh, Double-D. That poor poor dear. Did he realize he was never going to be the main character in his own life? Did Double-D know that regular people simply did not value the way he hoarded a massive surplus of impractical knowledge in his head? Eddy knew that modern wolf culture had, for the most part, started downplaying their centuries-old alpha/beta/omega caste system several generations ago, but sometimes we all have to embrace even the ugliest parts of our heritage. Double-D inarguably had the intellect of an alpha but the personality of an omega, and his omega personality so greatly outweighed his brain that he would be lucky if that averaged out to the overall status of a weak beta. Eddy felt bad for him. Eddy felt bad for all of those kids out there, but he especially pitied Double-D. If the kid had a heart to match his head, he’d be a force to be reckoned with, but as it was, he’d only ever be a tool used to build someone else’s machine of success. Eddy considered that he ought to help Double-D develop himself to be all he could be, but he decided against it, partially because he had no reason to believe that Double-D would ever be capable of becoming such a person, and partially because Eddy simply did not have the time.

And Ed. Ed, Ed, Ed. Silly old bear. The whole “comically dumb” schtick was starting to get old. What the hell was he going to do with his life? How could somebody possibly be so stupid and useless? If Double-D’s highest prospect was the life of a right-hand man, Ed would be too at-risk of fucking up at such a job to have a feasible future in that industry. Were they sure there wasn’t something clinically wrong with him? Was he ever taken to get diagnosed? What if his parents didn’t want him getting formally diagnosed because then their son would be put in Special Ed (no pun intended) and then the whole world would find out that Hill and Matilda Browne were actually siblings or cousins or something and Ed was inbred which would explain the low intelligence and the monobrow and the eyes being too far apart on his head and then the Browne parents agreed to have Matilda secretly fuck some other guy to conceive Sarah as a ruse that everything was alright genetically with them, but now their cover was blown and everything was conclusively not alright and the whole world would know and, and, and…

That endless train of thought ground to a halt to give right-of-way to a startling realization. It wasn’t even a particularly novel thought, and he had many similar thoughts time and time again before, including one that lead to this conclusion as part of an instantaneous series of synapses that transpired in the background while his forefront focus went on a rollercoaster making an impromptu conspiracy theory about why Ed was such an ugly-lookin’ son of a bitch.

First it was the common thought: Eddy hung out with a drooling idiot who liked sci-fi shit and horror movies and comic books and jawbreakers, and an overeducated living conglomeration of anxiety who liked science and math and technology and jawbreakers; Eddy himself liked money and cash and currency and capitalism and classic tunes on vinyl records and vintage print pornography and money and jawbreakers. Okay, not the first time he’d confronted that notion. He was aware that he actually had very little in common with his friends.

But as the brain of a sapient creature sometimes does, it takes a thought its bearer has had a thousand times over and invites itself to modify it to paint a picture that seems new despite all the parts being the same.

Eddy did not believe he had any real friends.

He had nobody whose presence he found more enjoyable than annoying; nobody whom he could trust in any situation that may arise in a million years of eventualities; nobody whom he could recruit to be the best man at his wedding or the godfather of his children. It wasn’t just that Eddy didn’t have someone with whom to share a fraternal bond stronger than the one he shared with his actual brother -- indeed, most people aren’t so fortunate; but Eddy did not feel like there was somebody in his life that he could accurately describe as a “friend” without some modifiers attached to damn them by faint praise.

The intrusive sound of flushing reset his brain, and the torturous thoughts were gone from him. Instead, as he waltzed his way toward his bed, he thought again about how he was going to rebound from having his supplies stolen.  He entertained the thought of tracking down Chief Woodland and stealing the laminate kit back, but between the three Eds, thievery was not a skill anywhere among them. He figured he would just have to bite the bullet and buy more if he ever wanted to catch up to his brother. But then again, catching up to him shouldn’t be too hard as long as his brother was still living out of a van--

Oh yeah, those weirdos in the van. As Eddy collapsed into bed, he wondered where they had come from and where they were going to go. Well, he thought, maybe he shouldn’t call them weird. At least not yet. He didn’t know their story. All he knew was that it was just the two of them. Hey, he had just been pondering whether anybody really has a legendarily tight platonic friendship; maybe that was what one of them looked like. Or maybe they really were a couple and they didn’t like that Eddy seemed to be disapproving of them. Whatever the case, as long as the van was clean when they vacated it, and there were no signs of a destructive drunken bro-out nor mysterious stains in the mattress, he could force himself not to pass judgment on these strangers, if for no other reason than he had more important things to think about.

And God knows he wanted to stop thinking about them, especially that British guy who seemed to have had every genetic marker land heads-side-up. Roger, or Robin, or whatever his name was. Eddy had paid paranoid attention to the guy, trying to keep a running tally of readily-evident pros and cons about this guy, hoping the cons would outnumber the pros so that Eddy could feel better about his own insecurities.

Alas, all the flaws he could come up with weren’t even that bad: Robin’s lack of gloves was kind of weird (but maybe only other foxes would notice that), his eyes looked kinda-sorta bulgey from the side (though Eddy’s brother probably had it worse), the sideburn fur on the side of his cheeks pointed out a weirdish angle that made it look like a triangle with the tip broken off (or maybe he brushed it that way and it was a fashion statement that Eddy didn’t have the style or confidence to pull off himself?), he wasn’t quite ripped like a vulpine Adonis (but at his size, would he need to be?), he still hung out with someone who made him look tiny (but that comes with the territory of being a member of the cleverest species), and he was British (lame). Oh, and now he may or may not have lasting scars on the palms of his paws because of a momentary lapse in judgment; that could be one or two more for the list. Time would tell.

But other than that, Eddy had just been face-to-face with a physical manifestation of the person he wished he could be: tall, lean, handsome, charismatic, persuasive, smart -- Double-D was so convinced that he was talking to a genius that he was displaying more respect and admiration for this gentleman fox after knowing him for fifteen minutes than he ever gave to Eddy after knowing him for a decade. Eddy had no idea that such a perfect specimen could even exist, and now that he did, he was pissed that it was somebody else and that it would never be him.

Then again, it was entirely possible that he’d overslept that morning, and that this was all a bad dream. Maybe it was simply a nightmare that he had been confronted by a manifestation of all the things he wanted to be and knew he never could, and that scene was actually the third act of a much grander production wherein he wasted hours of his finite time on this earth hiding in a van for fear of apprehension by Double-D’s uncle who had been MIA for the better part of a decade, who then appropriated key supplies for Eddy’s great new plan to flip to some government employees who probably already have plenty of the shit, and he was somehow such a bumbling idiot that he got within a few feet of them but couldn’t seal the deal because his partner (who was a mouse or something?) got the better of him, and the both of them were only there in the first place because somebody saw big stupid Ed fucking around in the junkyard and causing an avalanche of trash, and saw Eddy too, but somehow not Double-D, although maybe that stupid hat of his was enough to confuse the eyewitness on what species the kid was, and so the cops were only informed that their wanted fugitives were a bear and a fox, maybe even only a bear and a fox and no wolf, and wouldn’t Eddy have been pissed if he and Ed got booked but Double-D got off scot free on a lack of a warrant or however it works, so they would only arrest the bear and the fox because that’s who they had clearance to arrest, the bear and the fox but no wolf, but none of this insanity matters because wait wait wait stop stop stop stop stop.

Wait.

 

*A.N* Probably some shorter (relatively) chapters coming up after this. Now watch the next one wind up being five times as long as this lul. Thanks for watching, folks. -D

Chapter Text

  1. “Ward Goes to the Mayor”

The gothic-revival office building took up an entire city block, and while it certainly wasn’t the tallest building in town, it had more floors than any building you would see in the suburbs. Everyone called it city hall, which wasn’t incorrect, but it didn’t paint the complete picture. It chiefly contained the mayor’s office and the offices of all of his council members, but also all of the offices for all the municipal departments (public works and all that); precincts for the city, county, and state police departments (being the main precinct of the first two); a few floors of other offices for private businesses; and a shopping center and food court on the ground floor and basement levels, just for good measure. It had been an idea under the mayorhood of Richard Norman to maybe start moving the contents of the building around, just in case heaven forbid there was a fire or something like that, then not everything would be taken out at once. But his little brother’s administration had other priorities.

That younger brother sat impatiently at his desk, his chair turned to face the wide window on the north edge of the room. He wasn’t bored for lack of things he wanted to do. He would have much preferred to hop on the phone and start talking up his donors, or proposing some new laws and regulations to his helpless council just for the hell of it, or even gussying himself up in the mirror or simply counting his cash. But he knew the second that he started occupying himself, the imbecile would finally show up. He understood that the Chief had to drive in all the way from Georgetown, park in the garage on the second basement level, take the elevator up, absentmindedly get off on the wrong floor, be possessed to stop at the food court and grab some fries of a chicken sandwich or something, take the elevator to the fifth floor, go through security, get on the other elevator to reach the top floor, and take a solid five minutes trying to remember where the mayor’s office was. But he was still furious that it was taking this long.

So he sat there, looking out on the city over which he ruled, twiddling his thumbs to ward off an embarrassing compulsive habit of his, and trying really hard not to move any part of his head or his face so that his top hat wouldn’t slide over his eyes again. The top hat, antiquated as it was, was an old family heirloom dating back to the Victorian Era in the Old Country, reserved for the preeminent head of the Norman family. Richard didn’t take it with him to Washington because he thought it would be a silly look for the national stage, but John had no qualms about taking it for himself. John had tried to have it padded so that it wouldn’t keep sliding down his gaunt and thinly-maned head, but every expert he showed the hat to insisted that modifying it would ruin it. And yet this old thing was basically a crown in his family line, so wearing it precariously was better than not wearing it at all.

There was a thump at the thick wooden doors to his backside. It wasn’t a knock; it was a thump. That’s how he knew it wasn’t Chief Woodland.

“Come in, Hiss.”

There was a struggle with the handlebar doorknob, and it opened slightly and shut back on itself a few times as the mayor’s assistant had trouble propping it open enough to get into the gap, but eventually the weasel got his foot in the door and was able to weasel his way though.

“You didn’t use your mouth, did you?” the gangly lion asked without turning his head.

“No, Your Majesty, I wouldn’t think of it.” After all these years, Charles “Hiss” Hess didn’t even think anymore about how odd it might seem that he referred to the mayor as “Your Majesty”; what had started out as a condition of his employment became just a force of habit, and since his boss had shown him more dignity than most people in his life had (especially since the accident), he was more than happy to indulge him in his regal fantasies. Besides, he loved his work; it provided him with opportunities he’d never imagined he’d have.

“That’s a good boy, Hiss,” the so-called prince praised passively, again without looking; he had to keep steady to keep that hat on his head, after all. “Now, what is it that demands my attention? You know I’m expecting company soon.”

“That’s just the thing, sss ire,” the weasel replied with another one of his monikers for his employer. The genesis of his own serpentine nickname was a perfect storm of not just his last name and a highly-noticeable physical attribute (or lack thereof) that he shared with snakes, but also for how the gap in his teeth gave him a lisp that made s sounds sound a bit like a th- , but even more so like a hissing sound, something he liked to exaggerate for effect every so often when the moment seemed right. “I’ve finished cleaning up the record-books and now I’m ready for the next assignment. Perhaps I can arrange for something to help pass the time until the Chief and his deputy arrive?”

“No, no, Hiss, they’ll be here any time now, and I’m sure there’s more paperwork somewhere if you look for it.”

“Ah, but I in sss ist, milord!” His favorite part of his job was getting closer to power than he had ever thought possible. “Please, let me pour you a glass of wine to ease your troubled mind!”

“Hiss, do you really think of me as the kind of man who would get drunk before a very important meeting!?”

“Sire, one drink will not do you ill! And wouldn’t it make a meeting with Chief Woodland all the more bearable?”

Prince John finally turned his head to the persistent weasel. “Hiss, what on earth is with your insistence on giving me a glass of wine? Are you plotting to poison me!?”

“Oh, nonononono, Your Majesty! I just hate to see you so tense! It’s my job to serve you, after all, and why should I not take initiative?”

“Because you’re pestering me at an inconvenient time.” He turned his head back to the window; this time, the hat slipped down over his eyes. For a moment, he just sat there like that, at once too angry and mortified to acknowledge the shame. Then he finally allowed himself to readjust it and grumbled, “Oh, to hell with it, give me half a glass. And use the slip-ons!”

“Why, of cour sss e, milord,” Hiss bowed and made his way to the swivel chair in the corner that was just for him. He jostled it out of the corner with one of his feet and gently pushed it along with his hips until he got to where the wine rack and glasses were. He then scurried over to the next corner down the wall, where there was a box of sterilized latex gloves, also expressly for his usage. He nudged the box down to the wine station with his foot; he’d have put them on in the corner, but he didn’t want to get them dirty.

John Norman was still in a “I-could-take-it-or-leave-it” mood for the wine, but what made up his mind was his fascination with how Hiss managed to find elaborate ways to pull off tasks that the able-bodied would find all too simple. It was absolutely a spectacle to behold, and was a major reason why he kept the weasel employed when others would call it impractical (though many would say it was one of the least impractical things about how he ran the city). One could even say that to the Prince Mayor, watching Hiss do anything other than walk and breathe was almost hypnotizing.

Hiss was carefully slipping the gloves on his feet, making sure he still had the dexterity of his toes. He grappled the wine bottle by the neck, hooking his big toe under it for added grasp, and used his other foot to carefully slip the cork out. Wine was poured to the point where the glass was exactly half full, and the bottle was lowered back onto the counter, its surface perfectly parallel to the bottom of the bottle. The bottle was recorked, and Hiss slipped the neck of the glass between the toes of one foot while using his other foot to push himself and the chair across the thinly-carpeted floor.

John shifted a bit in his seat to better face Hiss as he came to deliver the drink. Now that he knew it was coming anyway, he was developing a genuine craving for it, and was beginning to feel a tinge of legitimate thirst. He reached out to his right to grab the glass from Hiss’s gloved foot, but Hiss kept scooting along just out of the mayor’s reach, parking himself right in front of him so that Prince John had to move back into his original position.

“Why, th-thank you, Hiss,” he reached out one hand again to grab the glass while using the other to keep the hat over his brow. “I really--”

“But wait, Majesty! Let us give it a nice good sss wirl…” Hiss insisted, and he started slowly swaying the glass right and left and a little more right and a bit more left, the liquid making waves that crashed upon the rim. “A steady will be good for the flavor. Don’t you agree, sss ire?”

“H-Hiss, please just, er… please just give me my--”

“But it’s not quite ready, now i sss it?”

The liquid rocked back and forth like a pendulum that was just so damned enthralling to watch, and as Hiss kept his focus on his boss’s face, he was glad that he wasn’t returning eye contact.

“It’s been sitting in that bottle for sss o long, milord,” Hiss said in his best attempt at cooing someone into tranquility. “We’d best ensure there are no sss ediments.”

John Norman wasn’t saying a word. He didn’t quite look like he’d yet been made to lose conscious control of his body, but it looked like he was on his way there. Charles knew that this probably wouldn’t be the day he’d pull it off, but practice makes perfect.

“You know I have your best interests in mind, sss ire,” Hiss murmured, very much making a point to incorporate s sounds near the ends of his sentences as he worked his magic.

In an interesting development, John’s lips peeled apart from one another and his jaw started sliding open. Hiss also noticed that the mayor hadn’t blinked for a bit. Hey, maybe this would be the day. A bit ahead of schedule, but no complaining there. Granted, he didn’t have quite a solid plan for what to do next, but if he had actually successfully wrested control of the mayor, he’d have plenty of time to figure it out.

But this would not be the day that Charles Hess would put his improvisation skills to the test. The knock at the door broke the trance with a visible tic on the lion’s gaunt face. Hiss stopped swinging the glass immediately and quelled the shit-eating grin that had been brewing on his face so Prince John wouldn’t realize what he’d been trying to pull.

Op -!” Mayor Norman spit out. “I-- I appear to have blacked out there again. Oh, my, I do need to see my physician about that--”

Knock knock knock . “Mister Mayor! Do ya want us to come in or not!?” An annoyingly familiar voice was getting agitated.

Prince John grabbed the glass of wine and swung around toward the door. “Oh, yes, yes, come in! The door’s open!” he hollered before taking a long swig.

The Chief of the Nottingham Police Department welcomed himself in, with his deputy reluctantly standing on his shoulder, trying to keep balance despite his superior’s horrible posture and bouncy, ungracious swagger.

Hiss stood from his chair and went over to greet the guests, nudging the swivel chair into the corner along the way. He made a mental note that he could probably have better luck winning over the mayor if he only could get his feet on a pocket watch, but since his job was to wait on Prince John more or less around the clock, stepping away to go buy a nifty accessory would be a bit of a challenge.

“How’s it goin’, Prince John?” the wolf greeted, then regarded the weasel. “Hiya, Chuckie.”

Hiss simply nodded and bowed a bit; he, like Nutzinger, didn’t exchange polite greetings aloud because they knew that Mayor Norman wanted to get to to business as soon as possible.

“It’s going poorly, Chief Woodland,” the lion grumbled. “Very, very, poorly. But I may have an idea to remedy our situation. Have a seat, you two.”

Woodland sat himself down in the chair opposite Mayor Norman. Nutzinger did his best to not fall over in the process, grabbing Woodland’s ear when he nearly lost his balance.

“Gah! Nutsy!”

“I wouldn’t’ve had to grab onto you if you were more elegant when you sat down, jackass.”

“Deputy Nitzinger, I can have Charles fetch you your own seat if you’d like,” the mayor offered, gesturing to the weasel standing at attention to the side.

“You tell me, boss,” Nutzinger answered. “I can stand right here if we aren’t gonna be here for, like, five hours. And if this guy can sit still for two minutes.”

To that, Woodland reached his arm up and flicked his thick finger on the squirrel’s gut. Nutzinger contained his exclamation of discomfort and pretended he didn’t feel anything.

“Well, we’ll certainly be here much longer than we need to be if you two don’t stop behaving like children!” Prince John scolded and gulped down the rest of his wine. “Thank you for the wine, Charles; I needed that.”

“Certainly, Mayor,” Hiss answered, less inclined to charm him with a hiss in the presence of company.

“Anyway, gentlemen,” Mayor Norman continued, “I’ve had a thought cross my mind as of late. I had thought it was quite the silly idea, but I may be having a change of heart now that I hear that you, Chief Woodland, have found a settlement in Sherwood Forest -- is that so, Eddward?”

“Absolutely, Mister Mayor!” the chief beamed. “And every indication is that it’s where the bandits live!”

“How so? Elucidate me.”

“Wh-what?”

“Explain the settlement, dumbass,” the squirrel muttered into his boss’s ear.

“Well, uh… there were a bunch of clothes in there. A lot of eyewitness reports say that the suspects are a fox and a bear, and I think the clothes were about the right size.”

“You think ,” answered the mayor. It was not a question.

“I do think that. Yes, Mayor.”

“What proof have you that they belong to a fox and a bear, Woodland?”

“Well, they were about the right size--”

“Do you or your department have any concrete proof that the assailants are a fox and a bear, Chief Woodland?”

“We have a whole bunch of eyewitnesses that say--”

“We’ve also had eyewitnesses over the years reporting coyotes, raccoons, badgers, wolves, wolverines, hippos, rhinos, and as recently as twelve hours ago, a pig.”

“I-I know that, uh--”

“Tell me, Woodland, what kind of fox and bear?”

“I know that one! A red one!”

“A red bear?”

“No, no, the bear’s brown! Or… tan? Orange! But, um, closer to brown than orange--?”

“Deputy Nutzinger, have you anything to add to this?”

“Sir, no, sir. Chief told me to stay by the road and make sure nobody took off with the car.”

“No, I didn’t! I told him to stay there to make sure no civilians went into the woods while we were investigating.”

“And to make sure they didn’t steal the car.”

“Nutsy!”

Again .”

“Enough!” roared the lion. “I have other things to accomplish today than to watch you two have a row.”

Nutzinger and Woodland stopped talking and turned their eyes toward the mayor. They each gave him a ‘don’t-you-dare-suggest-that-I-was-being-as-much-of-an-asshole-as- he -was’ look.

Prince John let out a light sigh. “Hiss, another glass of wine please?”

“Yes, Mayor!” the weasel vowed as he went off to fetch his swivel chair.

Full this time…” the mayor muttered before he turned his attention back to his chief of police. “Eddward, George, I apologize if I was being rather… catty with my interrogation? Would that be the right word? Sarcastic? Unconstructive?”

Woodland and Nutzinger still weren’t saying a word.

“Well anyway, let me be clear: it wasn’t that what you were saying was wrong , per se, Chief Woodland. The consensus is that there are only two of these bandits still wreaking havoc after all these years, and while they are -- evidently -- masters of disguise, they’ve give us enough clues that the tall, fat one is almost certainly a brown bear, and the small, slender one is either a coyote who looks like a fox, or a short-statured wolf who looks like a fox, or simply a rather tall fox. As for my own encounters with them? They were always either in some stupid get-up or making a quick getaway, but from what I’ve seen, I do espouse the fox-and-bear theory…”

John noticed that Hiss had finished filling his glass in his periphery. He paused to take a long swallow of the wine.

“...But you can’t prove any of it. You’re sloppy, Eddward. You found some clothes that perhaps, just maybe would fit these two? That’s it? No… ‘signs of life,’ shall we say?”

“Well, there were plenty of signs of life! There were sleeping bags and toilet paper and a teapot--”

“That’s not what I meant! I meant proof that the people you’ve been looking for were there!” Prince John was getting flustered and his sentence structure was deteriorating. “Did you see a stash of all that they stole? Did you see weapons? Did you see things with people’s names on them? Did you see them ? You can’t arrest some homeless people because they have toilet paper and a teapot. Or, rather, you can , but at the peril of making the entire city look bad. And you’ll make me look bad for appointing you. And that simply will not do, Eddward.”

Another brief moment of silence as the mayor gulped more wine down. When he finished, he took the remainder of the glass with him as he turned in his chair and stood to walk toward the window.

“Another quiz for you, Chief Woodland: how have we not found them yet over how-many years?”

“Seven! Seven years, Mayor John.”

“Eddward, that wasn’t the question. How do they keep eluding us?”

“Urm-- because they’re great masters of disguise!”

And ?”

“And… they…”

“They’re damn good at hiding, too,” piped in the squirrel.

“There we go! Thank you, George. And since their stomping grounds are right in the grey area of your jurisdiction, surely some of their hiding spots are in the suburbs, and that means what?”

“We have to cooperate with the suburban and county Boys,” answered Nutzinger without even giving Woodland the chance to think; George just wanted to press the fast forward button and have the mayor get to the point, but John Norman had always been a lover of dramatics.

“Precisely!” confirmed Prince John ecstatically.

“I’m sorry, Mayor, but… I’m not really getting where you’re going with all this.”

“Ah, yes, yes, yes. Reeling me in. Thank you, George. Showing more initiative than your commander, I see.”

Woodland knew better than to disagree.

John waltzed toward the left edge of the window and turned his gaze northwest. While the building was surrounded by skyscrapers on three sides, a point had been made not to obstruct the view from the mayor’s office all the way to the northern horizon, and from that window he could see the sea, the Fertile Crescent, and a sizeable thicket of trees bisected by the Georgetown-Millsboro Highway that the mayor now fixed his eyes on.

“Gentlemen, I have been made a fool of by these hooligans. Their capture is of the utmost importance, in a very personal way. And yet I don’t want anybody but my city’s police to be the ones to apprehend them. But! But… I acknowledge the fallacy of all this. I should want to see these mongrels captured by any means necessary. Yet the same minds that provide us with rational thought also fill us with irrational emotions. It’s such a cruel paradox. A travesty! But while I’m sure the men and women of the county and suburban departments are fine officers… they aren’t loyal to me as you two are. You deserve the glory more than they do. More than I do. So you boys can imagine how conflicted I feel when you tell me that now you’ve found a specific location that may be the outlaws’ hideaway. And of course it’s in that infernal purgatory where every department lays claim when it’s convenient for them and shies away when it’s not. It eats me up inside, gentlemen. Truly it does.”

“So are we gonna tell the other departments to fuck off and let us into their territory?” inquired Woodland.

“That’s the splendid thing about my idea: if it runs smoothly, we’ll not need to do something so drastic and overbearing. Shall I share it with you?”

“I was born ready,” Nutzinger spit out. Five minutes ago he would have been concerned that that came out sounding too sarcastic, but at this point he didn’t care.

“Lay it on us, Mister Mayor,” agreed the wolf.

“You’re planning to return to the campsite in Sherwood tonight to see if you can find anybody, correct?”

“Yuh-huh.”

“And you’re certain you’ll be able to relocate it, yes?”

“Yessir!”

“Splendid. Would you be opposed to taking some County officers with you? Perhaps even their Sheriff?”

“Uh-- is there a reason for that?”

“Eddward, would you agree that the County officials want the glory of capturing these delinquents as much as we do?”

“I-I think they do.”

“Hell, they’d jump at the chance to beat us to it,” Nutzinger added. “Make us look like a bunch of dumbfucks.”

“My fear exactly, George,” said John. “Would you also agree that it’s unlawful to be in the forest after sundown?”

“I would, Mayor!”

“That’s not even an agree-disagree thing; that’s just the law,” Nutzinger pointed out.

“Ha! The little squirrel knows his stuff! Now…” the mayor trailed off as he made his way back to his desk chair. “I think I have a way to bridge my rational desire to see these two captured with my irrational desire to want to be in charge of the people who do the capturing. Tonight, I want you to see to it that the first civilians you encounter in the depths of that damned forest -- if you encounter anybody at all -- see to it that they are beaten and arrested on the spot. If it’s the outlaws, then that’s brilliant. Mission accomplished. But if not, and it’s simply some trespassers, then -- oh, how shall I put this? -- it may open a new window of opportunity.”

“You want us to beat the shit out of the first random bums we come across!?” asked Nutzinger. Woodland wasn’t saying anything, but he clearly was also surprised by the tactics the mayor was advocating.

“Now George, after all of your good responses, this is quite the poor one. I never once said that you’d be the ones doing it. Simply that you’d be seeing to it. And again, it might wind up being the criminals, in which case they’ll have rightly deserved it! But just in case it isn’t…”

Mayor Norman stopped to take a sip of wine, adjust his hat, and open a drawer. From this drawer he pulled out a lump of metal and plastic emblazoned with the word “NOKIA”.

“Now, I’m about to ask you a question -- two questions, actually… no, no! I tell a lie! Three small questions! -- and I want you both to say yes, and mean it, for each of them. Firstly, are you two two decent actors ? Secondly, can you two both be persuasive ? And thirdly, Ward -- pardon me, George, but for size and spatial reasons, I’ll have to defer to Eddward on this -- Eddward, have you ever used one of these newer cell phones which can also be used as a camera?”