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No. Twenty-six.

Fenswick hardly slept at all.

Ordinarily, this would not be terribly unusual for a squirrel, but this particular night was unusual for him.

For starters, there was the whole him thing. Prior to being named and identified by Cody the Cat as a he, Fenswick had merely been a squirrel, an it. He had never known identity as an individual, let alone a gender, and it was blowing his tiny, little, squirrel mind, keeping him from sleep.

Beyond that, there was the unusually cold weather and the fact that he was sleeping mere inches away from a cat, one of many predators he had come to know and fear over the years. But, over the weeks, he had grown fond of Cody, recognizing him as a kind and caring and inquisitive fellow creature—drastically different from the owl. The owl was just an asshole, killing creatures for food and but mostly for sport.

He woke up shivering in his proximity to the entrance of the hovel. Cody lay a few more inches back, making all the apparent difference in the world. But there was something more than the chill in the air and the howling of the wind. Fenswick thought he heard voices—not human, not owl, not anything that would normally prey on him, but…

Oh, no, he thought, recognizing now exactly what he had first suspected them to be.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” Fenswick whisper-shouted to Cody.

“Hmm? What? I’m up,” Cody said, he eyes still squinted shut, sleep and grogginess muddling his voice.

“Chirp-chirp!” Fenswick said with emphasis.

“Yeah, of course I’m being quiet,” went on Cody, oblivious to the need for stealth.

“Well, well, well—what ‘ave we here?” Roderick bellowed as he peeked his head into the hovel. “It appears we ‘ave a couple of interlopers, yes we do. Uninvited guests, you might say?”

“Well, well, well,” chimed in Reginald, his masked visage mirroring Roderick’s as he peered in.

Fenswick’s hear rocketed to catastrophic ranges, while Cody arched his back in a seated position, causing his fur to spike out, seemingly increasing his size. He hissed at the raccoons who merely laughed at the cat’s actions.

“What’s that he’s doing there, my good sir?” inquired Reginald.

“I do believe, my dear Reginald, he is trying to frighten us by puffing out his fur,” replied Roderick, stoicly so as to insult Cody with not only his inaction at Cody’s action but also with the words he was able to articulate while Cody could emit not a single coherent syllable.

The two raccoons began to laugh with one another and at Cody. Outside of their home, Regina began to shiver from the still-dropping temperatures. The very dirt seemed like ice to her padded feet.

Finally, Fenswick gathered his bravery and leapt in between Cody—puffed as a balloon about to burst—and spoke.

“Raccoons of the riverbed!” he shouted.

Almost as immediately as his leaping, Fenswick clasped his hands to his mouth. Never before had he spoken out in the common speech so that others might more naturally understand him. Before, all of his—and other squirrels, too, for that matter—speech had just amounted to a series of chirps that squirrels could follow along pretty easily; they had a pretty much two-track mind: Collecting as much food as they possibly could and avoiding predators. It was the latter that had finally made something in Fenswick decide to break from squirrel kind and start out on this insane quest that now put him standing in between a cat on the defensive and a nursery of raccoons in the middle of the night in the close hunting grounds of a squirrel’s most frightening adversary, a great horned owl. He had become not only a squirrel with a name but also—and especially—a squirrel with a purpose.

“Good heavens, Reginald, it speaks!” Roderick turned as though stunned to the raccoon at his right.

Roderick, after a brief pause to collect his own senses, replied back, “The squirrel, yes, but that cat. The cat is still what puzzles me.”

“And what they’re doing in our home, of course?” Regina’s irritation had reached a critical point. She wanted to be out of the open. Though the owl was not of great concern to her—raccoons were just a touch too large for the owl near the pond to see as prey—the occasional coyote did give her cause for concern. Plus, she was just plain cold and tired. She wanted sleep and she wanted sleep now and in her own home.

“Oh, yes, of course, of course,” muttered Roderick.

Silent for as long as he’d ever been around these three raccoons, Ralph finally walked up to the two at the hovel’s entrance to speak.

“What they’re doing is seeking shelter from the coming snowstorm, you idiots,” Ralph said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. That Reginald and Roderick were unable to “read the room” as it were baffled him; Regina at least recognized that the air and even the ground on which they stood and walked had grown uncomfortably cold. It would be best to sleep it off, despite their low stores of fat; the collective warm bodies of their small nursery should be enough to keep them warm.

“Snowstorm? Good heavens, no,” Reginald said to Ralph, as well as to himself. He had heard of snow from the occasional migratory bird on its way to or from someplace else, but snow—and certainly snowstorms—just didn’t seem plausible for this place they called home. “What say you, Roderick? Have you ever heard of such ludicrous locution from anyone?”

“Ah,” began Roderick. He wasn’t sure where to go from that utterance. “Well,” he tried to begin again, fumbling through what to say, one syllable at a time. “It. Um. You. Hoo. Yes.”

That last syllable visibly knocked Reginald back a bit. In all their time together, Roderick had never known Reginald to be but in total agreement with him, be it in thoughts over what trash can to pilfer or what to say and to whom. They were practically the same raccoon with the same mind. Whether it was the unexpected find of a cat and a squirrel—and a talking squirrel at that—or that there was actual snow falling from the sky now had just been something to upset the otherwise natural order of things.

“Guys, it’s snowing,” Regina said, her eyes wide.

“Told you so,” Ralph said, for at least the second time tonight.

Regina’s statement of the snow falling from the sky, brought the four raccoons together, in a line, watching the foreign flakes of ice crystals falling from the sky, more and more quickly. With the entrance clear and the need for heightened senses abdicated, Fenswick ventured out to witness this meteorological miracle. He walked up, cautiously, to the four raccoons and spoke, breaking the silence that hung in the air, snowflakes flurrying all about it, about them.

“Raccoons of the riverbed,” Fenswick continued. “I am Fenswick of the northern neighborhoods where humans dwell. My feline friend and I seek shelter from this storm until he can dispatch the owl that has been killing off my family, our friends.”

“Owls never bother me,” Reginald muttered.

“Nor me,” agreed Roderick. “However,” he continued, “it cannot be discounted the vulnerability of raccoon young when the time comes. Owls are not known for subscribing to the same ethics as we for leaving the young alone.”

Regina clicked her tongue in her mouth, thinking deeply. “Can a cat actually kill an owl, though? He’s no bigger than we are, and I wouldn’t dare challenge an owl—even if I thought my life was on the line.”

“One cannot discount that the critter did appear prepared to take the four of us on,” Roderick said.

“True,” Reginald said, “though he would lost such a battle magnificently.”

At the sound of hearing others speaking about him, Cody peeked his head out into the icy air. Everywhere around him had been blanketed in the soft, white powder of snow, its size and thickness continuing to amass.

“Guys—and Regina,” Ralph said, “this has been a really strange night, and now there’s all of this snow. Two more warm bodies in our home will help keep us warm until the snow stops falling.”

“He does have a point, Reg,” Roderick said to his friend. “We’ll need more than the four of us to stay warm in this. I, for one, am simply chilled through!” He let a little chuckle and rubbed his forepaws together. “Besides,” Roderick continued, “a common-looking house cat like this one will make for such excellent sport, taking on that enormous owl down by the pond, will it not?”

“Yes, yes, I suppose it would,” Reginald said at last. He didn’t feel it beneficial to continue the argument, especially since he was experiencing difficulty in feeling his hind paws. They had grown numb in the cold, but he wasn’t about to tell any of them that.

“So, little guy,” Ralph said to Fenswick. “Whad did you say your name was? And the cat’s?” He was unaware that Cody was right behind them all, perched atop the rock marking the entrance to the raccoons’ nest until he spoke.

“He said his name was Fenswick,” Cody said. The four raccoons all jumped at the sudden sound of another speaking. “And my name is Cody. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back inside and get warmed up. And I’d also like for you to tell me everything you can about this owl.”

Mumbling in agreement that the idea to go inside was the best they’d ever heard, the six critters made for the hovel’s entrance, now just a sliver in the piling snow. Regina and Reginald began to dig a larger opening for them, with Ralph and Fenswick helping, as well. Cody sauntered over and sat next to Roderick, witnessing the show.

“I do like a good show,” Roderick said. “But you against an owl will lead to nothing but your utter disintegration. That’s not exactly sport in my reckoning.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence, raccoon,” Cody replied. “And thank you for having us in your home. Now, tell me more about this owl thing so I can avoid my ‘utter disintegration,’ as you put it, and, perhaps, give you a bit more of a show.”

“Hmm, I think I like you, cat,” Roderick said. “Saucy, just like my chap Reginald down there. Come, then, let’s adjourn to our humble abode, warm up, and tell some stories.

And with that, the six animals disappeared into the hovel as the hovel itself disappeared from sight, covered entirely in snow, just as all the woods around it, just as in Cody’s dream.

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