Tod was dozing in Amy's arms as she walked, the rocking motion relaxing the young pup in much the same way a cradle would. Suddenly, Tod was rudely awakened when he heard someone shouting close by, followed by running feet. Wincing at the ringing in his ears, Tod tried to cover his head with his paws as the person shouting drew closer. He heard Amy scold the shouter in hushed tones.
"Sheila! Tod's napping! Don't be so loud!"
Tod suddenly recognized Sheila's voice. She began to apologize, but was cut short by more, heavier footsteps. Tod hazily concluded that it must have been Mark, and his suspicions were confirmed when the cat groaned breathlessly.
"Dear Gods! What does a cat have to do to get you guys to stop walking? Whoo..."
Tod rolled over and yawned, pawing sleep from his eyes and stretching his tail. Amy stopped walking and Tod looked up at her smiling face.
"Glad to see you’re awake, Tod. Sorry about the sudden wake up."
Tod smiled at her then looked over at Sheila and Mark. They both looked winded and tired, but Mark especially. He said something about being out of shape then straightened up and cleared his throat.
"Well, we took care of the little mess Tod left behind. Apparently that young lady that smacked your brother went straight off to tell her folks that there was a pedophile at the park. We ran into them just as she was demanding they call the police and have Tod arrested. We spoke with the parents and told them about Tod, about how he's a runt, and they were more than understanding. From what we gathered, the young girl... what was her name?"
Tod ran a paw through his golden hair and sighed.
"Her name is Luciana...she prefers being called Lucy though...I thought she was nice. Well, at first..."
Unexpectedly, both Sheila and Mark burst into laughter. Tod cocked his head to the side and waited for them to quiet before inquiring the obvious.
"What? What's so funny?"
Sheila, now leaning on Mark's sweaty shoulder, covered her face with her paw as she struggled to control the few small snickers that were escaping. After a few more seconds, she explained.
"Tod, Lucy is the playground bully. When we spoke with her parents they told us that she's been violent with other kids quite often and usually for ridiculous things."
She turned and looked at Mark.
"Didn't her mother say that she tried to take her father's cell phone so that she could call the police to arrest a little boy who wouldn't share his toy truck with her?"
Mark started laughing again as he nodded. With him still being breathless from running, the laughter was short lived and punctuated with spits of coughing. As he doubled over, coughing, Sheila patted his back and continued.
"So, yeah, the parents understood when we spoke to them. I was afraid this was going to be some big ordeal because of the girl's antics, but it's okay. The parents also wanted to apologize to you, Tod, about how Lucy treated you, but no one could find you, so they wanted us to pass on the message. Problem is, when we finally find you, you're almost home and asleep in Amy's arms."
"The only reason he's asleep is because he's exhausted from playing with his two new friends."
Tod twisted around and looked under Amy's arm to see Shade absently tugging on one of his earrings, a knowing smile spread across his face. He gave Tod a playful wink before turning to speak in hushed tones to Dante, who was leaning on Shade with his arm on the rabbit's shoulder. He was cleaning a fang with one of his claws as he cocked an ear to listen.
When they were finished whispering amongst themselves, and Dante and Shade were both grinning widely, the group continued walking again. For a time they walked in silence, merely enjoying one another's presence as made their way home in the afternoon sunshine. The tranquility didn't last long, though, because Shade suddenly let out a war cry and dashed ahead. Tod realized the bunny was excited because home was within view, and he could just make out Shade's voice in between war whoops.
"I call first player!"
Dante and Eric, laughing, gave chase to the rabbit. Mark groaned, and Amy rolled her eyes. Tod turned and looked questioningly at Amy and saw that Sheila was grinning in a way that had most people locked into padded rooms for a long time.
"Amy? What did they mean by first player? And..."
He leaned closer and whispered in to Amy's perked ear.
"...and why is Sheila smiling like that? It's kinda scary..."
"Don't mind the game nuts...When the boys get together it always comes to this."
Tod remained silent. The words 'Game Nut' kept popping into his mind, bringing the image of a ball game for squirrels. Tod did not want to appear foolish, but his curiosity got the best of him.
"What kind of games? Like, football? Or cards? Or like, board games, and..."
Amy looked at Tod as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head.
"You're joking, right Tod?"
He didn't see what could have been funny about what he said, so he shook his head.
"You...have no idea what a video game is?"
Again the puppy shook his head, a sense of awkwardness welling up within him. His ears drooped as he again shook his head no, his tail curling up around his leg meekly. He was beginning to wish that he had not spoken up at all, but he wanted to know what she meant by 'games'. As he was contemplating an apology, Amy regained her composure and hugged the little dog in her arms.
"Well, I suppose you'll just have to wait and see. I'm sure you'll find it fascinating Tod, so just be patient, okay? We're only a couple blocks from home."
Tod nodded, and then gave out a startled yelp when Sheila dashed past in a wisp of fur. He heard Mark sigh quietly as Amy continued walking. Tod could only speculate on what 'video games' were, and amused himself with thoughts of a board game you watched on the television. He decided that it would probably be boring to watch several people playing, and he asserted to himself that he would much prefer to play the game itself rather than watch someone else.
When the house came into view, so did the sound of raised voices. It was Shade and Sheila, and it was obvious that Shade was not to happy. They stopped at the front yard and watched Shade yelling at Sheila, the rabbit dramatically shaking a finger above his head, his ears waving in agitation.
"NO! I downright refuse! You can't make me!"
"Oh, quit being such a stubborn rabbit!"
"Do I look like a fool to you?!"
"If I said yes, would you shut up and play the damned game?"
"Hell no! And you can't make me!"
"You already said that Shade..."
"It only makes it more true!"
Tod looked up at Amy, opening his mouth to ask why they were mad at each other. She caught his eye and shook her head, wanting him to hold his silence for the moment. Tod nodded his understanding and turned to look at the quarreling cat and bunny. Shade was losing ground fast, and he appeared none-too-happy about it.
"Sheila! No! It's not fair! You may have plenty of time to piddle away on your mountain of games, but I work, so my free time is a bit limited."
"Oh, you're just using that as an excuse. You know full well that we're practically equals."
"Hardly! Once you and Dante team up, it's like a maelstrom of doom!"
"Do you have any idea what that means?"
"No, but regardless of that fact I am using it to describe the massacre I witness when you two double-team! It's scary, and it's not fair!"
"Fine, then Dante will be on your team."
"Then we'll rape you and it's no challenge! Eric's good, but not like me. Or you. Or Dante for that matter. And we can't have Amy or Mark join in because they don't play."
"Well, how about this...We play a few rounds with the others, and then you and I go head to head. The first games are practice and then the others sit back and watch the fireworks, okay?"
"Well, when you put it that way, I'd have to say...."
Shade's mischievous smile began to widen into an unnerving smirk.
"...I'd have to say that you should be prepared to lose. After a few rounds as practice, I should be warmed up enough to beat you into nothingness."
Tod watched Sheila and Shade spit into each other's outstretched hands, shake, then hook arms and spin, while doing a complex foot dance. Tod heard Mark sigh again, and turned to see Mark pinching the bridge of his nose, rubbing it gently as if he had a headache.
"Dear Gods, they started a bet...And they're doing the dance too..."
Tod glanced up at Amy whose expression was that of suppressed laughter so he directed his question to Mark.
"Mark, what are they doing?"
"Well, Tod, Shade and Sheila have known each other for years, since they were swaddled in diapers. They started this crazy little...ritual, when they were in grade school. Started out over simple things and the bets were small. Pocket change, a toy, snacks, that sort of thing. Kid stuff. Anyway, when they hit junior high, and got serious about gaming, the stakes got higher. High school is the high point, and here they are, betting over money and car rides."
Mark's sighed and looked at the sky as he reflected on the past.
"Sheila told me about her friend Shade when we first started dating. I asked if I should be jealous, and she just laughed. She said he was like her brother, and they certainly act like it. I never actually expected to meet the guy, much less start hanging out with him regularly but, lo and behold, he starts dating Andy, walks into our lives, and now he games with us whenever he gets the chance. He's like one of the family, weird though he is. Of course, he and Sheila still make those weird bets..."
Tod nodded, though he was still had no clue what video games were exactly, and the idea of betting was a foreign concept to him, he who has never had anything to trade, nor loving people to have friendly challenges with. His idea of a challenge was avoiding his brothers for the day and hoping they didn't ambush him while he was sleeping at night. But, as he was puzzling over these ideas, Shade and Sheila finished their dance and dashed inside. Amy continued after them, tiny chuckles escaping every now and again, while Mark let out a tired sigh and followed, grumbling about how this whole ordeal was exhausting.
They stepped into the house and Tod was relieved to find it cool. Though it was late fall, it was curiously warm, and the shade felt delicious on Tod's fur. Tod stretched his arms and wriggled around uncomfortably until Amy set him on the floor. He heard her chuckle and he looked up at her.
"Amy, what time is it?"
Amy turned up her wrist and glanced at her watch, before looking down at Tod.
"It's three-forty Tod. Why do you ask? Need to be somewhere important?"
"Um...no, it's just I was wondering how long we had to play with everyone before they had to leave..."
"Oh, Tod, don't worry. They won't leave until late. We have school tomorrow, but none of us go to bed until late anyway. Our parents noticed, so they don't mind. As long as our schoolwork keeps up that is..."
The smile on Amy's face abruptly fled as she seemed to realize something. She cursed quietly and took off up the stairs towards their room, leaving Tod to stand in the entryway hall, confused. He shook his head and walked into the living room to where he could hear the others laughing and shouting at each other.
Dante, Sheila, Eric, and Shade were busily setting up a curious little device that sat on the floor in front of the television set. The thing was black, roughly the size of a shoe box, and similar in shape. It had four wires sticking out of the front of the device and at the end of each of these was another box-shaped object, though these appeared to be melded to fit a person’s hands. On the top were three buttons set into indentations, each button a different color. Tod saw that the biggest was green, the second largest was red, and the smallest was a pleasant blue. The green button had the word "ON" in white letters over it.
Shade and Sheila were having a heated debate over the necessity of certain wires, while Dante and Eric kept interjecting their opinions on Sheila and Shade's apparent lack of competency. They each held at least one wire with a colored tip in each paw, and they were struggling mightily to move the large television. Tod guessed that they wanted to plug the little machines wires into the television, but he didn't understand enough of the tiny machine for it to hold his interest for long. Eventually, he deigned to simply sit on the floor and listen to Sheila and Shade spout witty remarks at one another.
After much ado, the television and strange little box were properly set up, and just as Eric was leaning over to press the large green button Amy walked in carrying a small stack of papers and a thick orange book. Eric glanced up at her and laughed.
"Forgot your math again Amy? Mr. Quint is going be pissed if you don't have those problems done by tomorrow. And dad won't be too pleased either if he comes home and finds you doing your homework at the last minute again."
Amy shot him a glare but didn't respond, instead seating herself beside Tod and opening the orange book to the middle. She began writing, but when Tod glanced at the paper, he could not make heads nor tails of the confusing lines, numbers, letters, and occasional shapes. Dante plopped down comfortably on Tod's opposite side. He wiggled his bottom until he was comfortable and then he lifted Tod up and settled Tod in his lap. Tod let out a helpless giggle and snuggled against the wolf's chest, letting out a delighted churr. Tod noted that Dante's shirt smelled like cinnamon, and his sensitive nose was enjoying it. He waved a paw under Dante's arm to get Amy's attention.
"Um, where are mom and dad?"
"Hm...grocery shopping I think. We usually do that on the weekend, but, well, with your sudden arrival we've all been a bit busy. They must be out doing that. They should be home later, so don't worry that adorable head of yours, okay Tod?"
There was a click as the television was turned on, followed by a dramatic musical sequence that made Tod turn his head to see what it was. Large, dripping words proclaimed "Zombie Psychosis". Tod watched in surprise as Dante leaned sideways and snatched up a controller, while Eric, Shade, and Sheila grabbed the other three. A series of menus blinked up, and Dante navigated them with practiced ease. He selected the third line from a menu titled "Saves", the line having a date and time. Dante, apparently taking the leadership role, spoke up.
"Remember guys, stay together and maybe we won't die en mass like we did last time..."
Shade lifted his hand in a rude gesture at Dante.
"It's not my fault you guys decided not to follow me to the room! There was nice stuff in there!"
"Yeah, and a hoard of zombies. You went down faster than a rock in water."
Shade continued grumbling as the screen changed. The screen became divided into four equal squares, and in each was a creature looking surprisingly realistic. It took Tod a few moments to realize that all of them were merely computer-generated creatures and not really alive. There were two wolves, an otter, and mouse, each carrying some kind of large weapon. They all seemed to be in the same dimly-lit room, and Tod realized that each box was the view-point of the character being controlled. The view-point changed to that of first-person, and, as one, they moved to a door. Tod let out a frightened yelp and grabbed his tail in fear when a monstrous creature lacking skin attacked the group.
With the poor lighting, and spine-tingling, unearthly shrieks of the monster, and the heavy patter of gun fire, Tod found the experience terrifying. More of the things, with long, slavering tongues and missing parts of their bodies to the point where Tod could not guess there species, came rushing around corners and renewed the attack. Tod hid his face in his tail and whimpered, too afraid to do more than snatch peaks at the television.
He had to admit, the concept of video games was new and thrilling to Tod, but he was not having fun. Not in the least. In fact, Tod had to reprimand himself for nearly wetting himself when the first creature popped out of the darkness. He glanced at Amy to see if she was as scared as he was. He was surprised that she was not interested in the game in the least, sitting with her books in her lap and having a bored expression on her face. Over the gunshots and bestial howls coming from the television, Tod heard her stomach growl. He saw his chance and got out of Dante's lap by squeezing under his arm. The wolf lifted his arm to allow Tod out, but never took his eyes from the game.
Tod tapped Amy's arm and pointed at his stomach, then at hers. She lifted an eyebrow, but comprehension lit her eyes when Tod's stomach growled, much louder than hers. Amy stood and told the others that she was going to make something for them to snack on. No one seemed to hear her so engrossed were they in the game of killing zombies. The sight of all the blood was making Tod sick. When Amy left for the kitchen, Tod followed.
Tod hopped up into a stool as Amy began making peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, swinging his little legs in the air as he hummed a little song. In the background, he could still hear the terrible shrieks and the guns going off. Amy sat a plate in front of him, sprinkling chips onto it from a bag before setting a sandwich there. She went to the fridge and pulled out a jug of milk and proceeded to pour Tod a glass. Tod smiled happily as the glass was set before him.
"Thank you Amy!"
She smiled at him before setting the other sandwiches on a platter. She grabbed one for herself and nibbled at it while Tod quickly ate his own. He nibbled the chips, but found that he didn't like the flavor all that much, so he instead to took to sipping the milk Amy had given him. When he was finished, and Amy had eaten her own sandwich, she picked up the platter and started back towards the living room. Tod noticed a lack of gunfire and roaring, so he assumed that it was safe.
When he entered, everyone was in a different seat, but all were relatively close to the coffee table in the center where Amy had placed the platter of sandwiches. Tod held onto the edge of Amy's shirt as he looked at the screen, ready to hide his eyes from any further monstrosities. To his surprise though, there were no more monsters, but instead there were cars racing along a busy road. He watched with interest as one of the cars had a head-on collision with an approaching truck. By Dante's swearing, Tod assumed that he was controlling the now-demolished vehicle. After a few more moments of intense steering and the occasional explosion, they paused the game and turned to the sandwiches.
Amy sat back down and returned to her mathematics and Tod nestled by her side, smiling up at Shade who was now seated where Dante was previously. Shade dipped his finger in the jelly of his sandwich and then placed a dot of it on Tod's nose. Tod giggled and licked his nose, and Shade shook his head with a chuckle.
"Bet the girls love that tongue of yours, don't they Tod?"
Tod felt his ears heating at Shade's off-hand comment, but made offered no retort. Instead, he pointed at the screen, blinking "Paused" over the center, and asked.
"Um...Shade? What exactly is a video game..."
The rabbit chocked on his sandwich. He turned away and proceeded to cough and splutter into his hand for a good minute before he could breathe properly. When he finally regained control, he looked back at Tod, staring at him as if he were crazy.
"WHAT?! You've never played a video game?!"
Tod's ears drooped somewhat under Shade's incredulous stare. He squirmed uncomfortably, trying his best not to make eye contact.
"Well...no...I...I've never heard of them before. My parent's never mentioned them, and my older brothers...they...well, they preferred hitting me instead of doing other stuff..."
Shade looked away, apparently somewhat embarrassed by Tod's explanation. He reached over and ruffled Tod's hair, pausing to absently scratch behind Tod's right ear.
"I'm sorry Tod, I didn't know...Well, Tod, video games are like real life, only not. Nor is that a very good explanation is it? Anyway, it takes something like a movie or a book, and puts you in control of it. Like racing games, you race cars. Fantasy games, you rescue princesses, and zombie games...well, you shoot zombies and avoid being eaten. Kind of a no-brainer in that one. Hey! Zombies! No-brainer! HA! That's funny! I need to write these things down...Anyway, Tod, games are a virtual world where you can do almost anything. Go into space, fly planes, blow up cities, command armies, live a whole new life, all kinds of neat things. If you watch, you'll catch on pretty quick."
Tod nodded as he mulled over the information he'd gathered. Part of him wished that he lived in a virtual world. At least, most of it. He didn't appreciate being hit by Ashton and Terrance, but the past couple of days with his new family were rather enjoyable. He was still dreaming of fun things that he could do if he actually were in a video game when suddenly Shade got up and sat in front of the television. Sheila, following suit, sat beside him and the two immediately began bickering over who got to be first player. Shade eventually won out, stating that Sheila had beaten him last time, so he deserved to be first player. End of story.
Dante sat beside Tod again while Eric jumped onto the couch and lay down, rubbing Amy's ears affectionately. She reached up and gave his hand a loving squeeze before returning to her math homework. Dante again lifted Tod and place him in his lap, into which Tod nestled down comfortably. He watched Shade pop open the top of the box at the foot of the television and pull out something that looked reminiscent of a CD. He placed it in a box with a special indention that held it so that it wouldn't move around, and snapped it shut. On the cover was a car that was flipping over with its tires exploding into balls of fire.
Shade then pulled out a new box. Tod could not see the cover, but inside was another CD sized disk, which Shade took out and placed into the little box before clicking the lid closed. The television screen brought up a new logo, this time with the words "The Final Fight" in dramatic slashes across the top of the screen. Shade flicked through a myriad of screens before bringing both Sheila and him to a screen filled with boxes. Each box held a picture of a character. Tod guessed that, based on the title, the characters picked would be fighting one another.
Shade decided to go with a white rabbit for a character, while Sheila opted for a black panther. Upon making their decisions, the television suddenly shouted "GO!", startling the little pup into flattening his ears. He heard Dante chuckle sympathetically and scratch Tod's ear, but Tod was too surprised at what the screen was showing to really notice.
The camera was zoomed close on the two combatants, a muscular white rabbit wearing baggy black pants and a black panther wearing red pants and a red vest with gold trim down the sides. They were standing in what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot, filled with rusting cars and trash. And then they began fighting. Tod watched, his eyes wide, as the rabbit began unleashing a flurry of kicks and punches, while the panther deftly dodged or countered many of them before retaliating with several of his own punches and kicks. Tod's eyes flicked to Shade and Sheila’s hands, and he was astounded to see the two of them pressing buttons at an alarming rate, but this only distracted him for a moment before his eyes were pulled back to the violence.
Punches and kicks began connecting. Blood splattered to the ground, leaving shocking red streaks on the cracked pavement. The panther slashed at the rabbits face with its claws and left long, jagged gashes, to which he retaliated with a back kick to the panther's jaw, sending teeth and droplets of gore flying. Tod's breath was starting to come too quickly as he watched the mayhem. Every connecting blow made him wince, every bone jarring thud made him whimper softly. He laid his ears flat against his head and he realized he was gripping his tail so hard in his paws that it hurt. But he couldn't look away from the destruction the two fighters were raining on each other.
Large red bars at the top of the screen were rapidly diminishing in size with every blow, but Tod couldn't tear his eyes away from the two figures. His mind fell back into thoughts of the past while he watched them fight.
Terrance's fist hovering in front of him, that evil grin on his face as he let loose punch after punch. Ashton's booted foot walloping him in the stomach whenever Tod fell down from Terrance's punching. The repeated taunts, the insults, the mockery. Constant reminders that he didn't belong in such a good family as theirs. Proclamations that he should have died at birth and that he was good for nothing other than leeching off the hard work of others. Every insult was punctuated with a painful blow to an unprotected part of Tod's body. If he ever tried to defend himself, they merely hit harder. Often he was left in a small puddle of his own blood, sobbing in pain, begging for mercy. They only laughed.
Tod was gasping for breath at this point, his eyes filled with tears as shocking memories beat at his heart with the same intensity as the pixelated characters on the screen. Suddenly, the panther's bar at the top of the screen disappeared entirely. Shade let out a joyous whoop and pressed several buttons in rapid succession. The rabbit swept his leg under the panther's, tripping the bleeding creature to the ground, at which point the rabbit straddled him. He hooked an arm under the creatures jaw, and, as the panther struggled feebly, gave a mighty twist. There was a crack, and the panther's head and hands fell limp.
Tod let out a loud moan as he watched the scenes of death and violence. He felt Dante gently place his hands on his shoulders, heard him call his name, but Tod was in another world, filled with pain and blood and sorrow. He felt distantly that Dante was shaking him now, calling Tod with more urgency.
"I need to go...I need to go! Let me go! Please! Please let me go! Please! Dante let me go!"
Tod's voice was shrill with panic as he struggled viciously to get up. Dante let him go, saying something that Tod couldn't understand as forced himself to stand. He stumbled, his vision blurring as he rushed feverishly away from the others. He heard them all standing up, calling to him, asking him what was wrong, but he couldn't answer them. He had to get away. He didn't know where he could go, or why he had to run...he just had to.
Tod's labored breathing was the only thing he could hear outside of his pounding heartbeat as he rushed into the hallway. He climbed the stairs, searching for a place to hide himself away. Flashes of memory haunted him, of blood covered fists and angry shouts. He suddenly slowed as he reached the top of the stairs, clutching his chest as a wave of nausea hit him. He fell to his knees and then to his elbows as a low moan escaped him. He started crying for help, his voice barely audible and broken by quivering sobs. He heard voices all around him, trying to calm him down, but Tod kept screaming for help as his vision swam.
The nausea roiled within Tod's stomach, making the small pup gasp in pain. Suddenly, his back arched and Tod heaved once, then twice, and then he vomited explosively onto the carpet. He heard noises of revulsion that sounded like they belonged to Shade and Sheila. He shut his eyes as the world seemed to spin.
Tod tipped onto his side, his strength gone, but his breathing was still coming fast and quick. He felt a paw touch his brow and he opened his eyes in panic, but the room started spinning, making him gag and retch. He heard Amy speaking to him, her voice thick with worry.
"Tod, calm down. Please, you need to calm down. Tod!"
Tod couldn't calm down. He needed to get away. His mind raced in a panic as he thought of Ashton and Terrance, of the things they would do to him if they caught him like this. They would hurt him, badly, no matter how ill he was feeling. They always did. He needed to get away. To hide. To get to safety.
Tod pushed feebly with his legs, and fear brought a new surge of panic when he realized that his legs had so little strength in them. He felt hands on his back and fear brought a surge of adrenaline into his tiny body. He kicked off the ground and scrabbled down the hallway, his vision blurred by his tears, his heart pounding like a hammer against his ribs. They were right behind him, Tod knew that Ashton and Terrance wouldn't let him rest for anything. He needed to...
Tod's world went black, and the last thing Tod saw was the carpet rushing to meet him as his legs gave out beneath him. After that, silence.