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No. Twenty-five.

Absent the howling wind and shuffling leaves, human ears would have heard little more than hisses and high-pitched growls that was what passed for conversation between raccoons.

“My goodness, it is most certainly grown cold this evening, has it not?” asked the first.

“It most certainly has grown quite nippy out, my good Roderick,” replied the second. “Regina, what say you?”

“Who am I to disagree with the weather, dear Reginald,” said the third raccoon to the second with a natural air of superiority over her three male companions. She trudged along just behind the first two and quite far head of the fourth raccoon of their small nursery.

“I don’t like it,” he muttered from the far rear.

“What’s Ralph badgering on about?” inquired Reginald, loudly enough to reach Ralph’s ears. But Reginald didn’t care; he and Roderick and Regina didn’t care much for Ralph and his practicality at keeping them all safe from predators and other threats the nursery faced, but she was glad he was around during the times they really needed him. Right now, though, was not one of those times.

“He says he doesn’t like something,” said Regina. “Big surprise there.”

“Correct,” carried on Ralph, oblivious to the sarcasm in Regina’s voice, “I don’t like it one bit. You all saw that owl, didn’t you? It was watching us while we were there at the water’s edge. And now this wind, this cold?”

“What of it, good sir?” asked Reginald. It’s a bit nippy to remind us that galavanting all night without profit from poaching a trashcan or two will cause us to grow even colder inside!” He paused to stand upright, glancing around at his fellow raccoons.

“Good show, good sir,” Roderick said.”Good show, indeed.” Roderick, too, stopped and stood up on his hind legs in a show of solidarity with Reginald.

Regina stopped and put her forepaws to her forehead. “Oh, for fur’s sake.”

“Reginald,” began Ralph, “that is the dumbest thing I’ve heard from you in a very long time.”

Regina glanced back, unsure she had just heard Ralph express her exact thoughts aloud. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it promptly.

“Thank you, Reginald. I think,” said Ralph. By now, all four raccoons had stopped moving and were facing one another in a haphazard circle, all four of them appearing to sit upright. “Look, guys—and Regina—all I’m saying is that things just don’t seem right. It’s like something ominous is blowing in with this wind, and the owl was the cherry on top.”

“On top of what, Ralph?” asked Roderick.

“On top of all of this, Roderick,” Ralph stated, waving his forepaws about him. “There’s just something about all of this I don’t like. Especially that owl, the way it looked at us.”

“You mean the way it looked at you, Ralphie, old boy,” chortled Reginald. “You should know we all look at you that way when you’re not looking. And I say that as your friend.”

A silence widened the spacing between them before they all started laughing, falling down from their haunches. All of them except Ralph, that is. He still stood there, wavering only with the roaring of the wind whipping through the wooded area with a ferocity that would have made the big bad wolf take note.

“Fine,” said Ralph. “But don’t say I didn’t tell you so when things start to get sickeningly strange, like we find ourselves homeless or something.”

“Fine, old boy. As you say, fine,” laughed Roderick. “Now, which way is it to home? This night air is making even me want for a coat. Got one I can borrow, do you?” And he erupted into laughter again, Reginald guffawing alongside him. Even Regina tittered a bit, as though tipsy but still in control of most of her faculties. At times she felt sorry for Ralph in all of his seriousness, but gads, he could take the fun out discovering a stash of overturned trashcans outside of that buffet place they built up by the roadway where the cars drove extra fast.

Cripes, she thought to herself. Am I really starting to think like Ralph, seeing the practicality and the danger in things? I guess as long as I don’t start acting like him…

“Home is this way, guys—and Regina,” Ralph replied.

She hated being singled out like that, the only female member of their nursery quartet. Still it made her feel noticed, like Ralph wasn’t just another pompous raccoon acting like he was the ultimate gift to this little neck of the woods they called home.

Ralph had already begun walking again, this time with the three others in tow. It usually wound up this way: Ralph bringing up the rear at first before finding himself in the lead just as they reached home.

Huh, he pondered. Why is that? Are they using me as…bait?

But tonight he really didn’t care. The temperature had dropped drastically since the sun set hours ago, and the wind continued, unrelentingly. He exhaled with relief at having reached the entrance to their home, a hovel of rocks piled atop one another, with a passage leading deeper into the ground—deeper into the ground where it would still stay warm even if it got so cold it froze above ground. As he did so, he sat back up on his haunches, noticing he could see his breath, a puff of gray in the darkened sky of the woods. The others didn’t seem to notice, as they rumbled along, breaking apart just a few yards before the entrance to find varying places to relieve themselves before retiring early for the night.

As they all went about their business, including Ralph at a tree near hovel’s entrance, he noticed additional puffs of gray, these coming inside their home.

“Fellow raccoons,” Ralph began.

“Thundering trash heaps, Ralph,” Regina said, exasperation and exhaustion heavy in her voice, “what is it? We’re all tired and just want to go to bed.”

“Well,” he continued, “it seems there are other air-breathing creatures in our home. Look, their breaths can be seen coming out here into the cold air.”

“Ralph,” Roderick said. “Ralph, under most circumstances I would be willing to listen to whatever ramblings you had to spew forth—and you do spew forth a lot of ramblings—”

“Here-here,” Reginald agreed.

It was at that moment that Cody let out one of his deep sleep noises. Humans would have found it cute, but the unfamiliarity to sleeping cat sounds caught the nursery of raccoons off guard, and they scampered back a dozen or more yards, huddling between a large rock and a group of young trees.

When the silence resumed, save that of a low murmur of wind, Roderick, Reginald, and Regina exchanged glances before looking to Ralph, his head hung low.

“I told you so,” was all he had to say.

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