The smaller group of four had seen dozens of animals while late morning turned to early afternoon. It was hard to believe only a few hours had passed, as it felt like they had seen the whole zoo.
While the younger kids still goaded one another every now and again, they had found listening to the rabbit speak about the various animals more fun.
”This one looks like a toad,” Cheri said, as they went to the next small reptile enclosure, set into the stone wall in the dark Reptile Cave.
”Some people call it a horny toad,” Lyza remarked. “But it's a lizard.”
There were a few in the small glass box set into the wall, crawling about on the mulch floor. One hid in the leafy tree.
”Same as the other ones,” Ziggy-Zee mumbled.
”I thought boys were s'posta like lizards,” the vixen said.
”I thought girls were s'pos'a be all 'eek!'”
”Guys.” The rodent stated.
”This one's a little different from the others,” the rabbit began. “Its basic camouflage is its coloration, which protects it from avian predators. But for snakes, it has to puff up its body, kinda like the bearded dragon from earlier, and then it flips over onto its back.”
The raccoon chuckled. “Blegh!” He mocked, leaning back and spreading his arms a bit to pretend like he was keeling over.
”Kinda,” the rabbit smiled. “But, if there's a really big predator, like a cat or something, it does something even weirder: it shoots blood at them from its eyes.”
”That's so gross!” Cheri said, but with an inflection that mirrored Ziggy-Zee's.
The raccoon tapped on the glass.
”Hey.” Rini snagged his hand, and used it to point over at the sign. “'Warning: Do Not Tap On Glass.' Do not tap on glass,” she repeated, letting his hand go.
”Sorry,” he mumbled.
While she still guided them with the map, Rini had gone quiet for the most part. She mostly spoke only when someone spoke to her, or when the two third-graders started to step out of line.
She also didn't take that many pictures, and since they had gotten to the reptiles she had put her camera away and hadn't taken it back out.
They shuffled along in the cramped, dark, cave-like exhibit, stopping at several more enclosures.
Only a few times did Lyza falter on knowing something about the animal they were observing. But for those few times, she wore a cape of terseness, leaving Rini to read the placard in a monotone voice.
The light of the day nearly hurt their eyes as they emerged from the reptile exhibit. But while their eyes winced and squinted, their ears picked up a call:
”Oakers! Lunch time!” A teacher said loudly; not so much a shout, but a raised call like the free sample stands at the grocery store. “Oakers! Lunch time!”
The small group of four power-walked along the thoroughfare, finding their way to the calling voice. They saw some of the other groups, like large, fast caterpillars with how they kept pace in a cluster.
The voice guided them to a part of the zoo with several picnic tables and an enticing playground with some features they did not have at school, such as a climbing net like a spider's web, and a network of tunnels like an ant-bed.
There were a dozen groups; a baker's, when the quartet were included. A group for every teacher, whom were all working to get the kids settled: passing out the brown bags and lunch-boxes, corralling them to maintain their groups at certain tables, making sure they didn't sneak off to the playground, and two making doubly-sure that the right children received the right medications.
”Hey Rini,” greeted Kelly, as she sat to the rat's left.
The twins quietly sat to her right, staring across the table at the rabbit, and the young vixen and raccoon.
”Hi Kelly-Elly,” Cheri said. “I love your hair.”
The poodle tensed. “Th-Thanks,” she mumbled, mindfully brushing her short, curly bangs from her eyes. “How are you guys? Seeing lots of animals?”
”Uh-huh,” said the raccoon, slowing the word down with an inflection that rose and fell. He bit into his sandwich. “Wm sah uh tohnuh anuh—”
”Don't talk with your mouth full,” Rini said, her fingers curling and crinkling her bag.
The raccoon paused, looked down at the table, and then continued chewing, slowly.
The poodle leaned in close to her friend. “You okay?” She asked, softly.
”Fine,” the rat replied in a normal tone.
The felines exchanged glances.
”Kinda bummed the wolves didn't come out,” Cheri offered. “But we did get to see lots of animals, so far.”
”I haven't seen nearly as many as I wanted,” the poodle remarked, opening her lunch-box. “Ritzer's in my group. He keeps on making comments and stuff, and slowing us down.”
”You should see if you can join us,” suggested the raccoon. “Lizzy knows all kindsa stuff about animals.”
”Lizzy?” The twins said in unison.
The rabbit, who was quietly eating her wrap, paused in her bite.
”You mean Lyza?” Asked the poodle.
”Lissya?” The two kids tried to repeat.
”Her name is Liz today,” the rat explained. “No big deal.”
”Okay...” The pup stirred the pudding she had, eating it first. “Like, what stuff do you know about animals... Liz?” She asked the rabbit, the name falling from her muzzle like it was more foreign to say than her real one.
There was a moment of silence while the rabbit chewed and swallowed. “Enough.” She replied.
”She knows lots,” Ziggy-Zee remarked. “It's a lot more fun having her talk about stuff rather than just reading the signs.”
”Sure...” The poodle smiled, rolling her eyes.
The vixen tilted an ear. “Sure wha?” She asked.
”Over the weekend,”
”And read them all.”
The kids looked to each other.
”So?” The raccoon asked, with a shrug.
”Still more fun than reading them as we go,” the vixen said.
”Let's say she did,” the rat spoke up. “She'd have to memorize a lot of info in a short time. That alone—”
”Oh, yeah, you're right,” the poodle nodded. “She can barely remember how to say a word right after she hears it a hundred times.”
Lyza reached for her orange juice, taking a swig.
”I mean what good are those big ears for, anyway?”
She set the bottle down.
”Cheri, Ziggy,” the rabbit said, tilting the bottle left and right to watch the liquid settle about inside. “What you see before you is called an instigator.”
”Whassa instant-gator? Is it like a alligator?”
”No, an instigator is a person who intentionally tries to say or do things that they hope will make you get upset or angry.”
”Oh,” said Cheri, eyes shifting to the poodle in a way she thought was discreetly.
”Like, for example, if I were to say: 'Kelly, your hair looks hideous; what, did you stick your head in a blender?' Then, I would be an instigator.”
The bottle was let go, and it rapidly wobbled back and forth for a second before settling.
”Excuse me?” The poodle questioned, her brow furrowing and her nose flaring.
The tweet of a whistle grabbed their attention.
”When you finish eating,” said one of the third-grade teachers, “you can play 'till it's time to group up again.”
Some of the kids that had eaten quickly, excitedly hopped off their benches and took off. Some that were still eating began to eat even quicker, to also have as much time to play on the foreign grounds as they could.
”C'mon, Zig, let's go,” Cheri insisted, bapping him on the shoulder as he was drinking his juice.
He set the carton down. “Sec, I'm not done eating, yet,” he replied.
”Then I guess yer a rotten egg,” she taunted, getting up.
He started to get up, as well, the tease convincing him.
”Throw your trash away first,” the rat told them.
They gathered up their trash things and walked to the trashcan set in the corner of the little eating area.
”Sorry, I just wanted to get away,” the vixen muttered.
”Why?” The raccoon asked.
”You kidding?” Cheri gave him a squint. “That was really weird, they're talking like they're all mad at each other.” She dumped her trash into the open hole, backing away as a fly tried to swoop at her.
”I guess,” Ziggy-Zee admitted. “I just try to ignore you girls when you do that.”
”Puh!” Cheri scoffed. “Whatchya mean 'you girls?'” She asked, glancing a dagger his way. “Hu—Hey!” She dashed after him, as he had taken off after his quip.
Ziggy fumbled into one of the tunnels that expanded into a network that criss-crossed and meandered like a termite's mound.
Cheri started to scurry after him, but quickly found she wasn't going to be able to keep up and keep herself from giving someone else a peek at London and France, again.
”I'll get you later, jerk,” she shouted up into the tunnels, making her way more carefully to a more open part of the playground, where she could stand upright.
Within the next ten minutes, nearly all kids had made their way from the tables to the playgrounds.
Chains rattled and tinkled as bridges were crossed and swings were jumped from.
The ball-bearing in the zip-line was constantly humming as kids ran toward it and leapt on, swinging along the rail until it clacked at the other side.
Broad springs creaked and squealed as a few lucky kids rode the metal dinosaur, lion, zebra, and two-seater elephant.
There was a wooden tower, and at the top a bell was found rather quickly. It was rung, near constantly, as kids made their way up the short climb from inside.
”Aaaaugh! I hate that stupid ringing!” Said a rabbit-doe, pulling down on her ears.
”Hang on, Dee,” said the chinchilla next to her, reaching into her pocket. She sniffled, as she pulled out a packet of tissues. “You can tear one up and tuck 'em in your ears.” She offered.
”So, um... what else ya know about lizards, Cheri?” Asked a mousette, sitting next to the vixen.
The bobcat on the other side of her chuckled. “Milly is too afraid to go see them, but sure as heck wants to know all about them,” she teased.
The vixen smiled. “It's okay,” she said, with a shrug. “I didn't wanna go see a scary movie once, but I wanted to know about it, so I asked my brother to tell me all about it.”
The girls had found a shady spot that also wasn't cramped and enclosed. They were beneath a set of cargo-nets and ropes that criss-crossed and wove up above them. They were white, but had been sun-burned to a dingy yellow on the top, like a barely-roasted marshmallow. They guessed that it was supposed to be a spider web, if anything.
”Oh, uhm... Let's see,” the vixen thought. “There's one lizard called the, um... The hornematoad, and it's uh... it's small, like hand-sized, but it can puff up kinda big like a puffer-fish, and then it can shoot blood out of its eyes!” She put her hands up by her eyes, pointing her fingers out like they were where blood was going to spurt out.
Milly squirmed and shuddered, holding herself. “Ew, gross-gross-gross I hate blood! How small are they?” She asked.
”Not like super tiny,” Cheri remarked. “Like I said, they can fit in your palm, but they can puff up.”
”That sure sounds familiar,” said a voice from up above.
The bobcat wrinkled her muzzle as she looked up. “Jeez. Cher, tell you boyfriend this spot is girls-only.”
”I'm not her boyfriend.”
”He's not my boyfriend.” They both said at the same time.
”Jinx!” The chinchilla squeaked and raised her hand, making the rabbit next to her flinch. “You owe me a Coke!”
”What are you doing here, dork?” The bobcat asked the raccoon above.
Ziggy-Zee slithered down from over the cargo-net, slipping through the space just above them. He hanged from his hands and shoes, with his stomach drooping downward. “I'mma sthpiiiiiiduuuur” he said, trying to scuttle to the side.
”You're one dorky-lookin' sthp'd'r,” said the rabbit-doe.
”Go be a doofus somewhere else,” the vixen warned. “I had to deal with you all day and this is my break-time.”
”You just don't want me catchin' you pretending to be smart like Lizzy with your friends.”
”What're you even talking about?” Cheri crossed her arms.
”I was listenin' the whole time,” the raccoon revealed. “You've been parroting everything Lizzy taught us today. If they think you just know all this stuff, then your friends are dumber than me!” He threaded his feet and hands one at a time to point his feet toward the vixen and his head toward the rabbit opposite her as he spoke.
”Like we care,” the bobcat puffed. “At least she can remember what she learned. You barely remembered it was a field trip today.”
The raccoon giggled.
”What's so funny?” The rabbit asked, looking up at him and trying to see what he was looking at.
”I see London, I see France...” He tuned.
Cheri went wide-eyed, and very quickly sat quite differently.
”You creep!” The mousette squeaked, pulling off her sandal and throwing it at him.
”Uhg!” The boy grunted, his hands reflexively going to cup a sensitive part that had just been pegged by the sandal. But, in doing so, he lost his delicate hold on the netting, and fell down with a sharp puff of air.
The girls sat in a few seconds of silence as the raccoon started to groan and roll onto his side.
”Stop faking,” the vixen barked, amidst his rising groans of agony.
”You fell like two inches, you wuss,” the bobcat added, bolstering her friend's comment.
”I-I-I didn't mean...” the mousette stammered, moving to her knees and crawling over to the boy. “Hey-hey-hey,” she said with worry, helping to roll him onto his back. “I'm sorry, are you hurt really bad?” She leaned over him, her nose nearly to his. “I'll go get a teacher a—”
The other girls watched in horror as Ziggy-Zee opened his muzzle, jutted his neck forward, and stuck out his tongue, planting it squarely on the mousette's nose.
Other kids turned their heads as the raccoon darted out, with a vixen just behind his bushy, ringed tail. That seemed to happen like the lightning strike before the thunder, as just after a squeal erupted from beneath the cargo nets.
But, such outbursts were not uncommon amongst the third-graders, and so the chase was added into the stable of other acts of horseplay that went on.
Shouting came from the tower as a group tried to claim it for themselves, ringing the bell endlessly.
The kids on the zip-line had taken to playing a pleasant game of modified Chicken, where one stood in the line of the zip, and the rider went at them as fast as they could; the standing “defender” had to either stop the slider, or chicken-out and jump out of the way.
A girl that had jumped from the swings too high and landed too hard on the pebbles began to sob, her knees and hands scuffed from the awkward fall.
Another pleasant game had started on the bridge, where boys tried to “sumo-wrestle” and push each other from one side to the other.
About the only thing that had not see some kind of animosity about it were the little spring animals that quiet boys and girls quietly took turns quietly riding.
”Hey!” Called a rat, as she plotted a course to intercept the vixen chasing the raccoon. Her call hit the raccoon's ear, and he turned toward her. When they met each other, the coon hid behind the rodent.
”She's trying to beat me up!” He said.
”You're darn right you little—”
”Hey hey—hey!” Rini barked, pushing the two away.
Hearing the commotion, the older rabbit doe was approaching them.
”You,” Rini said to the vixen. “Why are you chasing him?”
”Cuz he licked Millicent on the face.”
The rabbit's ears twitched.
”Why are you licking people on the face?” The rat asked the raccoon, dead-pan.
”I was just bein' goofy! Besides, Milly hit me with her sandal.”
”Cuz you were bein' gross and peeking at me again!” The vixen countered.
”What d'yo—” The rat started to ask, when Ziggy-Zee cut her off by muttering:
”Cuz you were bein' a whore.”
”Hell-o,” the rabbit said, as the rat's jaw fell unhinged.
”E—Excuse me!?” Rini asked, rhetorically. “Zachary Sean Taylor,” she called him by full name, “You don't talk like that, ever!”
The raccoon suddenly looked confused. “Like what?” He asked.
”Don't you play dumb,” Rini scolded. “I'm about to go let Mrs. Standlord know what you just said, unless you apologize right now.”
”H—” Lyza started to speak, but a dagger's-glance from the rat right as she took her breath in made the thought immediately fizzle before it had a chance to leave her muzzle.
”No... Nonono, please,” the raccoon quickly backpedaled, holding up his hands, “I already have four strikes, and two of them weren't even my fault! If I get another one, my dad's gonna get—”
”Nowhere in there are the words I'm waiting for,” the rat interrupted.
”I don't even know what you're talking about!” The raccoon whined, holding his head and shaking. “What'd I do?”
”Hmph, I'm going to tell the teacher,” the vixen resolved. “What name did he call me? A war?”
”No, please, Cheri, I'm s—” Ziggy-Zee stepped up to her, holding her by the shoulders.
”Don't touch me!” She said, pushing him off. “Get away from me!” She took off.
Rini looked at the raccoon, and at the rabbit, and then took off after the vixen.
Left with the raccoon, Lyza watched as he started to cry. She looked away, nervously at first. No one seemed to really care. Though some looked, most were too concerned with playing.
”Hey, um...” The rabbit reached out, putting her hand on the raccoon's arm.
He flinched, quieting a little.
”That... was a bad word, you said, y'know?” The rabbit told him.
”...Wh...Whore?” The raccoon asked in a whisper.
Lyza nodded. “That's... like a cuss-word.” She explained.
”It... It's just someone trying to get attention,” he remarked. “She was telling her friends all the stuff you told us,” he went on, through sniffles and glances around. “About the animals. She was pretending like she knew about that stuff all along. She was getting all kinds of attention from them, and she didn't once say she learned it all from you... I heard her, the whole time.”
”Where'd you learn that word?” The rabbit asked.
He rubbed at his eyes. “On... On the internet...” He replied. “I... Went to some sites I wasn't s'posed to, though. It said I had to be thirteen, but...” He sat down. “Now I'm gonna be grounded the whole dang summer,” he sulked.
The rabbit took in a breath. “Listen, I'll vouch for you,” she offered. “You thought you knew what the word meant, now you know it's a bad word... You're not gonna use it again, right?”
”No!” He whined. “I wouldn't have if I knew it was gonna get me in trouble!”
”Sh,” she fanned her hand in a gesture to tell him to relax. “Acting like that isn't going to help. Stand up,” she said, holding out her hand. When he took it, she helped him to his feet. “Dust yourself off, you got sand on your butt,” she brushed the side of his shorts to show him. “Let's you and me go to them, that way we're not on the defensive.” She held out her hand.
Nodding, the raccoon took it, and walked with the rabbit. He looked up at her as she surveyed the area for the rat, vixen, and teacher. He recalled how she was with the other girls, and felt like maybe there was a chance she could help him get out of trouble.
”Heads-up, they're coming this way.”
At first Ziggy-Zee tensed. But then, he didn't see his teacher with them. When they approached each other, there was a gentle breeze of silence that lasted for a few seconds.
”We couldn't find Mrs. Standlord, yet,” Rini said.
”Okay.” Lyza nodded. “I took the time to talk it through with Ziggy. He thought the word meant something else when he saw it online; I think he's being honest when he says he didn't know it was a bad word.”
”You 'took the time to talk it through,' huh?” The rat muttered, as Ziggy-Zee's hand slipped from the rabbit's.
”Sorry, Cheri,” the raccoon mumbled, but loud enough to hear.
”For what, exactly?” The vixen asked in a leading inflection, folding her arms, expecting something more.
”...For... calling you a bad word...” He elaborated.
She wrinkled her nose. “So... Not for bothering me and my friends, huh?”
”I wasn't bothering you, I was just listening and didn't hear you say anything about—”
”So you were bothering us by listening in o—”
”I think...” The rabbit interjected, pausing to make sure she had the attention. “I think Ziggy was... just trying to be... fair.” She offered. “He just... wanted to give me credit for... I guess... the stuff I was telling you guys, right?”
The raccoon nodded when she looked to him for affirmation. “That's it... I just... want to be fair.” He added.
The vixen let out a huff.
”I think we've still got a little bit of time left before we look at more animals,” Lyza said, looking about at the state of the commotion about the playground and the teachers. “When we meet back up, let's... be fair.” She looked at the rat. “...Agreed?”
”Uh-huh,” Ziggy-Zee agreed.
The vixen let out another huff, but dropped her arms to her side. “Fine.” She agreed.
The rat's eyes looked away. “Sounds good to me,” she said, softly.”
Lyza held the silence for a moment longer before saying, “Cool. See you guys in a bit.”
With that, the raccoon watched the rabbit walk away. He looked at the other two girls, and took a step back. “I... gotta go potty,” he said, and went in the direction of the restrooms.
He didn't actually have to go, but he figured it was better to have an excuse to walk away than just walk away. He went in and waited inside for what he felt was a long enough time to pretend like he had done something, and went back out.
He still felt like Cheri might blab to the teacher. She didn't seem at all like she was serious about agreeing to be fair. But, then, he sort of felt guilty that the rabbit was reading a little more into things.
But... maybe there was something to what she said. He really didn't like that Cheri hadn't mentioned the things she told her friends were basically what Lizzy had just taught them. He felt like if she had caught him doing that with his friends, she would think the same thing.
He walked about the sidewalk, thinking. He didn't like thinking, but he had to make sure Cheri didn't blab. He was already in hot water with his dad; another note from his teacher and he'd get The Belt.
As he walked, the coins in his pocket jingled. Along the short sidewalk he paced across, he passed a vending machine. It had a slightly rattly hum to it. He passed it a couple of times before an idea came to him.
He looked at the contents of the machine. There were some candy bars and chips and things. He reached into his pocket, pulling out the coins. He looked at the prices, and did the math in his head.
His excitement quickly fleeted when he saw he was a little short for the cheapest things in the machine. But, out of habit, he went to the change slot. Inside, his fingers touched another few coins. His heart lept.
Looking around, he pulled out the coins and did more math. He had enough to get the next-least-expensive things, now. He looked over his options, standing on tip-toes to read as much as he could.
Finally, he settled on the bag of Skittles. That would be a good peace-offering. She loved fruity-tasting things, if he recalled correctly.
The coins plunked in, and he practiced typing in the number combination to make sure he got the right one before committing.
The corkscrew wire rotated, pushing the bag of skittles forward. This was where, on TV or something, the bag would get stuck and he'd have to pound the machine and go on some epic adventure just to get what he wanted. But, fortunately, this was not TV, and the bag smoothly dropped into the tray below.
It squeaked as he reached in, the bag crinkling as he clutched it firmly, and then the flap squeaked and patted closed a couple times.
The leftover change began falling out into the change slot, but he decided to leave it. Maybe another boy that got in trouble would try to do the same thing he did, and find just enough to get something to help slip out of it.
While he walked along the sidewalk, the other three were walking to him.
”There you are,” the rabbit remarked. “We were about to form a rescue party.”
The raccoon chuckled. “Um... I was actually...” He looked at the vixen, and pulled the bag of Skittles out of his pocket. “I just... wanted to really say I was sorry, for calling you a bad word, so...” He stepped in front of Cheri, and held up the bag. “I got these for you.”
She looked at the bag, and then up at the racoon's mask. “...Are you serious?” She asked, almost bitterly.
The bag crinkled as Ziggy-Zee hesitated. “Of... Of course. I... don't want you to be mad at me.” He told her.
”Well I guess I can't be very mad if I'm dead, huh?” She snapped at him.
The rat and rabbit exchanged glances.
”I don't... Know what you mean?” The raccoon asked, his face completely confused.
”I'm allergic to artificial purple, you idiot,” she growled. “You know that. I've told you before.”
”But... You said you liked fruit-tasting candy...”
”No. I said I wish I could eat it, but I can't, cuz a lot of it has artificial purple. Ugh!” She threw her hands up. “See? This is your problem! You don't pay any attention at all.”
”No no, it's okay, it's fine,” he tried to reconcile, panicking a little. He opened up the bag. “I'll eat all the purple ones, right? That way you can eat the others?” He dumped a few in his hand. “See? No purple ones.” He extended the offering to her.
”Zig,” the rat spoke up, “this is really sweet of you, but I don't think—”
A sound like pebbles skipping across the ground hit the rabbit's ears as the raccoon's hand was struck to the side.
”No! I can-not eat them, you jerk,” she ripped the bag from his hands, and several fell to the ground, before she threw it off to the side. “I dunno what's worse, that you're actually that dumb, or that you actually tried to hurt me.”
Lyza had a fit of momentary limpness as a shrieking-squealing blast of sound came from the raccoon. She stumbled back, holding her hands to her ears, her eyes rolling and seeing flashes of light. The effects quickly slipped away, and when she looked to where the kids had been standing, the vixen was flat on her back like the other Skittles.
The raccoon and rat were not with them. A quick look around and Lyza saw them sprinting toward the playground. Others were already looking at them, teachers beginning to stand up.
The rabbit squatted down next to the vixen. “You okay?” She asked.
”He... He shoved me...” She said, dazed. “He's... never done that before...”
”C'mon,” Lyza grabbed the girl by the bicep, and moving over toward her legs. “Stand up, you don't wanna flash the whole zoo,” she reasoned.
It took a few tugs before Cheri worked with the rabbit to get back to her feet. She was dusted off, and one of the teachers approached.
”Are you okay, sweetie?” She asked the girl.
”He shoved me...” Cheri repeated, starting to go teary. She was holding her palm.
”Did you hurt your hand?” The teacher asked, gently taking it. “Maybe a bruise? You want some ice?”
”I'm... okay...” The vixen said, distantly. “...Where'd Zig go...?” She asked, looking around. In her survey, she saw the Skittles bag lying on the ground. It crinkled as the wind picked the opened-end up, and then again when it lazily fell back down after the breeze passed.
”I'll go get Mrs. Standlord,” the teacher said. “Can you wait here with her?” She asked the rabbit.
Cheri looked at all the Skittles on the ground. She flinched, when the rabbit entering her line of sight startled her. She watched as the doe picked up the greens, oranges, reds, and purples. “What... happened...?” She asked.
The rabbit paused, and looked up at the vixen. “You tell me,” she shrugged, plucking the last few Skittles nearby and dropping them into her cupped hand. “Or Mrs. Standlord, when she comes.”
”He wasn't... s'posta push me...” She mumbled, nervously.
Lyza's left ear tilted for a second. “What exactly were you expecting?” The rabbit asked, rhetorically. “I mean, just from my perspective,” she said, “it looked like he was really trying to get across a genuine apology, and then you just stomped all over it.” She stood up, and looked over to the bag a few feet away.
She could hear the stamping of feet. Harsh and stern.
”What's going on? Where's Zachary?” The third-grade teacher questioned with a blatant frustration that was out of sync with her petite appearance.
”I... He...” The vixen started to speak, but was still reeling from the whole thing.
”He went off that way, and Rini went after.” The rabbit said.
”You two come with me,” she instructed, grabbing the vixen's hand.
Lyza couldn't tell if Cheri winced more from fear, or from the pain she probably felt when the teacher grabbed her scraped and bruised hand so tightly.
They marched over to the playground. It wasn't difficult to find Zachary. He was crying, holed up in a little tube inside the termite mound, his voice carrying along both sides. The kids that had gathered stepped away when the teacher approached.
”Zachary!” The teacher barked, making the small crowd of kids step back a little more. “Get out here, right now!”
From in the tube, the crying became more frightened, rising a bit in pitch, like a teapot on the verge of whining.
”You,” the teacher said to the rat. “Go get him out.”
Rini didn't move, looking into the tunnel.
”I got it,” the rabbit said, before anything more tense happened, and crawled in. Even as she went to the raccoon, she could hear the teacher's voice carrying in.
”I'm sorry, Rini. I thought you could help get them to work together, but I guess that was too much to ask of you. I'll talk with your teacher to put you and your friend in another group for the rest of the day.”
Lyza found the raccoon curled up in a ball, hugging his ringed tail. Silently, she sat next to him. “Sorry, Zig,” she whispered, “but... I can't vouch for you this time.”
He sniffled, and quivered.
She wrapped an arm around him, squeezing him tightly. “C'mon... Let's go.” Almost cruelly, she passed him, broke him out of his curl, and coaxed him to move along in the tunnel, toward his waiting teacher.
* * *
The school bell rang.
Doors burst open, and the halls filled with squeaks and chatter as kids spilled forth, toward the buses and cars.
Lyza quietly followed Rini from the classroom into the hall. They paused against the wall, watching as the stream of other kids steadily flowed. The rabbit spotted a gray pair of ears sticking up from the sea of head-tops, and the brief flash of cool, blue eyes as the face peeked through the occasional gap between heads.
The wolf pup paused in the brunt of the flow, forcing other kids to move around him as he stared at the rat and rabbit. “She's the one we're taking home?” He asked, his eyes meeting the rabbit's with a sense of familiarity.
”Mhmm.” Rini nodded, hiking up the shoulder-straps of her backpack. “Lead the way, mom should be waiting.” She held out her hand.
The wolf took it, and started leading the rat down the hall.
Uncoupled, the rabbit followed Rini's backpack as best she could. But a small boy threaded his way in between them and somehow a couple more kids spaced them apart. When she made it outside, the wolf and rat were waiting for her off to the side of the door.
”I guess she's not here, yet,” the rat said, lifting up on her toes impatiently. “I hope Mrs. Rinder doesn't see me. 'Why'd you say you couldn't do patrols today?'” Rini mocked in their science teacher's voice.
”Why didn't you?” The rabbit asked, her voice low.
The rat's demeanor dampened as well. “Cuz,” she replied. “Goren's gotta wait for me, but I didn't want you to have to.” She kicked her heel over the cement sidewalk. “Guess mom forgot and now we're waiting anyway.”
”Don't get all fussy, Naomi,” the wolf remarked, “she's right there, that bus was just blocking her.”
Lyza vaguely recalled the SUV. She had seen it before, when her brother had taken Rini home the night of the Oak And Firefly Festival. She recalled it looked silver, but in the sunlight it looked an off-white, cream color.
They waited in relative silence for the next few moments while the car made its way into the pickup-lane. The rabbit kept the rat in her peripheral vision, but idly looked about. She thought she heard Emeral's voice somewhere, but glancing about outside she didn't see her old friend.
The tires of the SUV squeaked when Rini's mom rolled to a stop in front of them.
The rat cringed, stepping up to the door and opening it. “Mom, get the brakes checked,” she said, pulling the door opened wide. “Lizzy first,” she motioned to the rabbit. “I'll be monkey-in-the-middle.”
Lyza swiveled her ears back, and approached the car, clambering in.
”The brakes are fine, honey,” said the dark-brown rat in the driver's seat. “Dad just took the cars to get serviced a few weeks ago.”
”Well it's loud as heck and embarrassing.” Her daughter complained as she slid along the seats into the middle.
Goren set his backpack in the foot-well of the seats, hopped up on the edge of the door-frame, and held onto the oh-shit-bar to deftly plop into his seat. Once in, he shut the door.
”What?” He asked with an innocent grin. “That's how I always get in the car.”
”Seatbelts,” the driver told them.
Lyza looked up to find hers. It had one of those padded covers that made it more comfortable against her chest and neck. While she fidgeted to get the buckle into the holster, Rini's hip nudged against her knuckles, and there came a smack.
”C'mon, no horseplay,” the mother rat scolded.
Lyza managed to click the seatbelt secure, and leaned away from the monkey in the middle, resting against the door.
However, her usual resting posture that she took in her brother's car inadvertently aligned with the window switch, so when the heel of her palm rested on the plastic, it accidentally let the window slip down an inch or so.
She quickly corrected the window, and sat upright instead, but scooted closer to the door.
”We're ready,” Rini announced.
The car subtly shifted as the gear switched from neutral, and they began rolling, navigating along the buses.
”You'll be able to tell me how to get to your house when we get to the neighborhood, right Lisa?”
The rabbit hesitated for just second.
”It's Liz, mom,” the rat next to her corrected.
”Right, sorry,” the mother replied. “But, you hear my question, honey?”
”I can,” the rabbit replied, softly.
”Or, if you want, you can hang out at our house 'till some family gets home,” the mother offered.
Rini's gaze fell to her knees, and she shifted to put her hands between them, and press them together.
”Thank you,” the rabbit said, “but, um... I usually have chores I have to do.”
”Mmmmkay, it's up to you.”
”Hey,” the wolf interjected, using his knuckles to gently tap the outside of the rat's right knee. “Can I see all the pics you took at the zoo?”
”Oh, yeah, how was it?”
”It was fine, mom,” the rat replied to the second question, and then used a hand to keep her boyfriend from pulling up her backpack. “I don't have any pictures,” she said, flatly.
Goren paused, and sat back as they rolled to a stop a light. “Why not?”
”I... Um... I forgot to charge the camera.”
Lyza's eyes shifted slightly from looking out the window, so that Rini was in her peripheral vision again.
”Really?” He questioned. “That's not like you, Ingrid. You were all excited to take pictures...”
”Yeah, well,” the rat leaned back. “There wasn't anything to really take a picture of there, anyway. Nothing really exciting about a bunch of animals in cages.”
”Hey, speaking of exciting,” the wolf thought, “What the heck was the deal with that Ziggy kid at lunch? He threw a huge hissy-fit?”
”He and Cheri were getting on each other's nerves,” the rodent replied.
”Oh... what happened between Cheri and Zachary?” The mother asked with concern.
”Nothing, mom,” her daughter replied. “Just a lot of misunderstanding and being stupid.”
”Is something wrong, honey?” Mom asked to daughter. “You sound a bit grumpy.”
”I'm fine,” Rini replied. “Just... today wasn't really what I thought it was gonna be.”
”Hm...” The mother hummed with thought, as she turned her blinker on. “Liz?” In the rear-view mirror, she saw the rabbit's ears cross one another as the rabbit turned her nose to the front. “How is your brother? Is he not feeling well today?”
”Um... he's... feeling fine,” the rabbit replied.
”Oh. I thought maybe I was taking you home because he was sick.”
Lyza shifted uncomfortably. “No, he's just... um... He's got finals.”
”Oh, so is he still in high school?”
”He's graduating this year,” the rabbit replied.
”What school does he go to?”
”Mom, don't be so nosy,” Rini grumbled.
The mother let out a huff of surprise. “Rebecca, don't talk at me like that in front of your new friend. That's very disrespectful.”
”Hush,” she admonished her daughter, reaching back to slap the girl's knee. “I was wondering if maybe he went to school with Maxamillion and Theophelus.”
”He's... moved schools... a couple times,” Lyza said. “He's been going to McClendon this year.”
”McClendon?” Goren asked. “Isn't that... like, on the other side of town?”
”It's got a magnet-program,” The rabbit explained. “They have some classes he's taking that kinda prepare you for college and careers and stuff—oh, we're getting close,” she mentioned, seeing a few landmarks that told her they were getting close to the neighborhood.
”Am I on the right track?” The mother rodent asked.
”Yeah, take a right here.” The rabbit looked at the rat, and swiveled her ears out of the way so she could lean forward and peek around the driver's seat, out the windshield. “See that rock mailbox a few intersections down?”
”Mhmm,” the mother nodded.
”That's the turn onto my street. My house is toward the end, on the right. It's... kinda dark-looking, cuz of the wood.”
”Well, you certainly don't live far from us,” chuckled the driver. “When did you move to town?”
”Mom...” Rini said.
”Yes?” Said her mother, a bit grumpily.
”Liz and I were in the same class a few times.”
”Oh... Well how come you've never invited her over, if she lived so close?”
Goren saw the house. It looked almost black, the wood it was made of so dark. When he didn't hear any sound to his left as they neared the driveway, he looked over to see Becky sitting very uncomfortably beside him.
”Well,” said the driver, as she passed the mouth of the driveway and into the other intersection to turn about. “Here you are. Home sweet... home,” she said, putting the car into park.
”Thank you,” the rabbit said, opening the car door to slide out.
”Would you walk her to the door, honey?”
As the rabbit's sneakers hit the cement, the rat that was sitting beside her stirred, and followed her out. She didn't wait, but headed to her door, slinging her backpack in front of her to unzip the pocket and get at her key.
Rini watched and waited as the rabbit fished for her key. It was pulled up, fumbled in hand, and the teeth scraped against the pins grittily as it was pushed in.
The lock clacked free when the key turned.
”See ya tomorrow,” the rat bid, lifting her hand in a lazy wave, turning away.
The rodent flinched, half-twisting back.
Lyza had a startled look on her own muzzle. “I... didn't mean it that loud,” she admitted. “You just... almost didn't give me a chance to say thanks, for dropping me off.”
Rini took in a breath. “No big deal,” she said, with a shrug.
”It helped my brother out a lot,” the rabbit added, as the rat was about to turn again. “It's finals, so—”
”Yeah, my bros are studying, too,” the rat said.
The rabbit nodded. “But, I've only got one to pick me up every day... And it helped him, to not have to worry about rushing from his test to beat traffic and get me.”
The rat relaxed a bit. “Like I said, no big deal.”
”Well... I mean,” Lyza rested her hand on the shoulder strap of her backpack, squeezing it. “I was going to ask... If you could take me home on Thursday, too,” she said. “But, your mom has that thing, so, it's okay, no worries.” She started to turn.
”That thing?” The rat asked, lifting a brow in genuine confusion.
”Y-Yeah. That thing she can't be late to. It's okay, my bro wasn't expecting it, I just... was gonna ask for him, but—”
”Your house is like right on the way to mine,” Rini said, waving her hand dismissively. “I'm sure... that mom can be on time for her... 'thing...' even if we drop you off. So, tell your bro not to worry.” She gave a thumbs-up. “We'll getchya home.”
The rabbit looked to the side, taking in a breath. “Thanks.” She said, her hand finally relaxing from its hold on the shoulder-strap.
”See you tomorrow,” Rini bid, this time less curtly.
Lyza held up her hand in a lazy wave.
Rini went back to the idling SUV, hopping in. Her mom put the car in gear as she buckled up. “Hey, wait for me to buckle.”
”Oh, sorry honey,” her mom said. “I just... That house,” she let out a breath. “It looks so dark and sinister.”
”Whose?” The rat asked, the buckle clicking into place.
”Your new friend's.”
”Mom!” The rat scoffed. “That's really rude.”
”But it's so stark,” her mother added.
”Well get over it, cuz I want to take her home again on Thursday.”
”They're not satanists are they?”
”No, mom!” She huffed, and slapped her boyfriend on the knee. “They're Russian! Sheesh,” the rat pressed her head against the back of the seat. “That's probably how all houses look where her parents came from.”
”Hm...” The car turned onto their street, and the mother turned up the radio as the news started. “No wonder it looks so sinister.”