Crittertown

(C) Sprout San Francisco

Here’s a snippet from the new novel.  Enjoy!  Bear in mind that this is hot off the presses, totally unedited, and will likely change substantially before publication.

I’m aping AA Milne a bit here, so for increased enjoyment, imagine the text as read in the voice of your favorite Brit.

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Crittertown

The trouble in Crittertown began as most trouble in Crittertown does: with a long summer’s day, and too much time to think.

It was five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and Denny the Cat was fishing on the waters of the Big Wet Lake. His vessel, the SS Whiskers, was a fine galley: a one-cat canoe, with a freshly-painted rudder. His rod was the picture of craftsmanship: a long oak shaft, perfectly sculpted, with a red stripe around its middle to draw the eye. His line was fine, thick wire, picked fresh from Old Lady Badger’s piano just that morning, much to Old Lady Badger’s dismay. His bait was an excellent tuna sandwich; Denny loved tuna sandwiches, so he had thought the fish must as well. But his boat was riding high, his rod had yet to bend, his line was starting to fray, and his tuna sandwich was a soggy, sopping mess — for Denny the Cat had yet to catch a thing.

It wasn’t his fault, certainly. He blamed the weather, and Cali Potamus’s big mouth. She had told him just yesterday that the weather would be fine: a clear blue sky, which would be perfect for fishing. But she had told him by the pond, Denny realized now, and the fish there must have overheard her. They must have swam down to the lake and spread the word to be on-guard. What other explanation could there be? The trick, Denny supposed, was to fish on days which were no good for fishing, and so catch the fish by surprise. Maybe that was why Yellerbelly Hound only ever went fishing at night.

Denny was reeling in his lure and preparing to call the day a loss when a blob on the horizon caught his eye. He squinted, training his gaze on the bobbing shape, and soon recognized it as none other than the SS Cottontail: a beautiful two-handled washtub with a modified cork, captained by his best friend, Peter the Rabbit.

“Ahoy, Captain Pete!” Denny called, rowing closer.

Peter was lying on his back, hands on his tummy, staring up at the sky. He appeared to have been half-napping. “Oh,” he said, lifting his head, over the rim, “Hullo Denny.”

“Permission to come aboard?”

Peter smiled. “Duly granted.”

Denny stood and gave a happy meow. “Just let me drop anchor!”

He pulled the anchor from under a bench, unhooked it from the boat, leaned overboard, and let go. It hit the water with a heavy plunk, and Peter and Denny watched it disappear beneath the surface, Denny sighing, “The sea is a greedy mistress, my friend.” It was his fifteenth anchor this month.

“You know—” Pete began, but Denny cried, “HUP HO!” and threw his rod and tackle-box high above. He leapt after them, somersaulting in the air, and landed in a seated position aboard the SS Cottontail. His rod landed perfectly in an outstretched paw. His tackle-box landed perfectly in the lake.

The SS Cottontail rocked back and forth, slopping in water. “Careful!” Peter warned. “You’ll sink us!”

“Don’t worry,” Denny said, waving him off, “if we take on too much water, I’ll simply pull this cork here, and let it all drain out into the lake.” Peter gave him a look that said he doubted the genius of such an idea, but Denny assured him, “Don’t worry. I’m a seaman.”

Peter just shook his head, and said nothing.

Peter was a quiet rabbit. That was what Denny liked about him. Unlike that loudmouth Bunny Fufu, and maybe unlike Denny himself, Peter only spoke when he had something to say. For Peter, words were a precious resource. For Denny, they were a basic commodity.

But words were birds and wishes were fishes, and Denny meant to catch himself as many of the latter as the failing daylight would allow. So he shut up, sat down, untethered his hook, and drew his arm back to cast.

Looking around to make sure he didn’t tangle with Peter’s line, he realized Peter didn’t have a line, or any rod at all. He didn’t have a net, nor a club or harpoon. Denny supposed he might have a sonar stored somewhere belowdecks, but certainly couldn’t see it from here. “Pete,” he asked, genuinely curious, “how do you fish without a rod?”

“I don’t.” Peter said simply.

“Well then why don’t you have one?”

“Because I don’t intend to fish.”

Denny was flummoxed. How could one fish without intending to? “But—”

Peter sighed, “Denny, I’m not out here to fish.”

This troubled Denny, for the promise of delicious fish was the only thing which he could fathom as justification for braving the water. Denny the Cat was a cat, and cats hate water — even cats made of felt, stitch, and stuffing. Had the rabbit gone silly in the sun? Why would one ever boat if not for fish? Or was Peter only playing a joke?

“Oh!” Denny got it all of a sudden. It was a joke, but not on him: Peter intended to catch the fish off-guard. “I see,” he said, hastily hiding his rod, “of course, of course,” he cried, cupping his hand and shouting out over the water, ”I’m not here to fish either!”

Peter opened his mouth to say something, but Denny just shushed him and gave a big wink; it was best if they didn’t overdo it.

“Nope!” Denny went on, “Not here for fish, no sir! Those brave, handsome, delicious creatures are far too crafty for me! Why, I’m only here to—” whispering side-long, “…Pete, what are we here for?”

Peter Rabbit sighed and laid back down. “Thinking, mostly.”

“Thinkinmosly!” Denny boomed. “Yes sir, just a fine day of some good old fashion thinkinmosly, with my good buddy Pete and absolutely no barbecuing whatsoever!”

Denny cackled, throwing himself down next to Pete, and snuggling into the bottom of the boat. He listened to hear the fishes’ wishes and chatter, until he remembered that he couldn’t speak fish. Pity, that. Well, no matter; he’d put on his best thinkinmosly-face until they couldn’t help but be fooled.

“Pete,” he whispered, elbowing, “what are we thinkinmosly about?”

“Thinking mostly about clouds,” said Pete, pointing up.

Denny looked up. There were no clouds today. He puzzled over that riddle for a fine twelve seconds before seeking out a hint. “Which, ah, clouds are we thinking about?” he asked nonchalantly, for Pete was smarter than Denny most of the time, and making a point of that fact was a sure way to bring about hurt feelings on either side.

“Oh,” said Pete, smiling warmly, “not today-clouds, Denny Cat. I was thinking of clouds from last week.”

“Ah, of course, of course.” Denny nodded sensibly. “Those clouds we had last week. During those seven days.” He swished his tail against the boat, and resisted the temptation to lunge for it. He added, “In the sky, they were. All cloudy.”

Peter sat up, hanging his arms backward out the side of the boat. It was a happy pose, and one Denny knew well, typically taken at the beginning of one of their best talks, or before Pete delivered one of his own brilliant ideas, like the time when they were just little plushies, and Pete had hatched a cunning plot to rob Bill Bull the Baker of six fresh-made mud-pies. Bill had been furious when he’d caught them, mad enough to call the police dogs. They’d gotten away with it, though: Pete had protected Denny from Yellerbelly Hound, when that grumpy old dog came sniffing about. Pete was always protecting Denny that way.

But Pete’s face didn’t look happy, nor protective, nor as though he had some idea. Peter Rabbit looked preoccupied, distracted, and sad. He said, “I was trying to remember how the clouds looked last Tuesday.”

Denny’s tail thumped against the side of the boat, and swished to a stop.

Now Denny was often a foolish cat, but no one could ever call him silly, or slow; not like Why the Bear or his brothers Nodont and Please, each named for the only word he had ever spoken. Denny knew that the way a critter’s words were said was often as important as the words themselves. He knew that when Peter said he was thinking of the clouds last Tuesday, what Peter was really thinking about was the World’s Best Picnic.

The World’s Best Picnic was a tradition going back as far as Crittertown could remember. Held two weeks before Fireworks Day, it was how the critters bid farewell to the spring, and said how-do to the summer. It was a fine gathering, full of lawn-games and pot-luck feasts — casseroles as deep as the Big Wet Lake, and cakes as tall as Tuck’s Lighthouse. It was also the last day Peter Rabbit had seen Bunny Fufu, before she went away.

“Oh, the clouds last Tuesday! Why yes, I remember they looked like marshmallows,” said Denny, suddenly anxious, “or mushrooms, but then I always get those two confused. Which are the ones you can bounce on like trampolines, and which are the ones you roast over a fire?” He was hoping to change the subject, perhaps to he and Peter’s annual camping trip—which always began on Fireworks Day—and plans yet-to-be-made thereabout.

Pete started to answer, but Denny didn’t like the sound of it.

So he jumped up, balancing on the edge of the wash-bucket-boat, and made a show of casting his line into the water, then propping it up and scanning the horizon. “Say,” he said quickly, “when we go camping this year, what say we go to Tippy Top Island? I found some caves there last year, and I bet they’re just filled with pirate treasure.” He gave a yo-ho jig of his arm, suggesting a summer of nautical-themed pirate adventures, but his heart wasn’t in it, and at any rate, when he cast a glance over his shoulder, he realized Peter hadn’t heard a single word.

“Where do you think she went?” Peter asked.

Denny deflated.

He turned to face Pete and sat down with a heavy fwump. “Who knows?” he said grudgingly. Who cares was what he meant, but that wouldn’t be a very fuzzy thing to say. Denny was a good friend, or tried to be. Peter was sad, and Denny knew that when your friends were sad, you were supposed to make them feel better. That way, at the end, everyone could learn a Lesson.

Denny didn’t know, though, what Lesson there was to learn from the feelings-hurter Bunny Fufu. The only thing she had ever seemed willing to teach was bad words, and how to draw rude pictures. Once, Denny had caught her holding hands with Mr. Duck, in the orchards beyond Tuck’s Lighthouse. Another time, he had spied her trying to hold hands with Peter.

Denny had never much liked Bunny Fufu.

“I just don’t understand,” Pete sighed, rubbing at his brass button-eyes, “why would she leave and not say anything, Denny? Why not even a goodbye?”

“Mayor Grumby already said,” Denny grouched, unable to contain his exasperation, “she won that arts-n-crafts contest and a hot-air balloon-cruise. She gets to see the whole Wide Woods!” Denny cried, feeling jealous and distinctly unfuzzy. Denny was a pretty good arts-n-crafter. Why hadn’t he won? Was there no justice? “You should be happy for her,” he insisted as hard as he could, though Denny was simply happy she had gone.

Peter looked up suddenly, then, and his face was full of mad: a mad so severe that it made Denny pull back in shock, and made his tumbly feel rumbly and his button-eyes wet. Pete had been so mad lately. Mad at Mayor Grumby, and at cruises, mad in the morning and at night, mad at groceries, mad at blueberries, mad at singalongs and story-time, and sometimes, Denny had suspected, even mad at himself. But maybe he saw the hurt on Denny’s face, and maybe that was what caused him to tuck his ears and check himself. He turned his head toward Tippy Top Island, and stared there for a very long time. Eventually, quietly, he muttered something to himself.

Denny said, “What?” and leaned forward. He hoped maybe it was an apology. It needn’t even be a real one; he’d settle for a conciliatory grunt. Then the Trouble would be over, and things would be better, and he and Peter both both might learn a Lesson.

But Peter only scoffed bitterly. “Balloon-cruise.” He rolled his eyes. “My tail! As if Bunny would ever go any higher off the ground than a mailbox. Mayor Grumby’s just a shady old liar.”

Denny gasped, stuffing a paw into his mouth, and pounding his foot against the floor in protestation. “PETER!” he hissed, feeling his back arch in fright.

Peter wiped at his face. “Oh, stop it already!”

“You said a bad word!” Denny gaped. “I can’t believe you!”

Peter jumped to his feet so fast it set the boat to rocking. “Denny Cat” he yelled, “why are you such a—!”

But whatever he was going to say just then went wafting away in the wind. Peter’s eyes focused on something in the water, and before Denny could follow his gaze, something else demanded attention, in the opposite direction.

Denny turned to where his rod was propped up against the side of the boat. The reel turned some. The line was bobbing.

Denny broke out grinning.

A fish!

Denny forgot his anger in a heartbeat, leaping over Peter and snatching up the rod. A fish, a fish! A fine, flaky fish! Oh, Denny had just known he would catch one! It had all been a trick on Peter’s part; a fake argument, to draw the nosy ones in. Now they’d learn a Lesson, the big-eared buggers: never to doubt the dynamic duo of Peter Rabbit and Denny Cat, and what it meant to be on the wrong end of a shish-kebab.

Denny set the rod between his legs, leaning on his tail, and locked his bottom paws against the inside of the boat. He spit on the reel so it wouldn’t catch fire, then licked his lips. Luring them in was the hard part; catching them was easy. He could taste smoked salmon already.

But when Denny looked up, it wasn’t a flopping fish he saw hooked at the end of his line. It was something else. A critter — somebody was out for a swim. This far out, in such deep water? Denny thought that that seemed unusual, until he realized who it was.

Peter said, “Bunny.”

Denny snarled.

The critter in the water was Bunny Fufu.

“That’s just great!” Denny snapped, lifting his rod over his head and bringing it down on his knee to break it in two. “Bunny Fufu, back so soon! Well, why not! Yes please, do come aboard!”

She gazed up at him impassively from the surface of the water, eyebrows arched sardonically. Denny hated her stupid, dumb face.

He said, “Sure, why, we’ll all just drop what we’re doing and go swimming with Bunny Fufu! After all, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? It’s not like we were fishing! It’s not like me and Pete are best friends! It’s not like we’re a club with one rule, and it’s not like that rules is no girls allowed!”

Beneath this withering torrent of abuse, Bunny Fufu said nothing. She only floated there, and smiled.

Pete said, “Bunny…”

Oh, the heck with her! Denny turned on Pete, poking him in the chest with the bottom half of his broken fishing-rod. “You know,” he said, feeling his ears flatten against his head in agitation, “I didn’t even think you’d be out here today, Pete. I came out here all by myself, do you know that? I wanted to go fishing, and I didn’t invite you. What have you got to say about that?!”

Peter mouthed something, not making a sound.

Denny jabbed him again, grunting “EH?”

Peter repeated, “Bunny Fufu can’t swim.”

Denny wrinkled his nose, confused. What was that supposed to mean? “Of course she can,” he said, annoyed, though unsurely, turning around and looking down. Bunny Fufu had swum up to the side of the boat and was now staring straight up at Denny. Of course she could swim! She was swimming right now!

“Bunny,” Denny started, “tell Pete…” but he trailed off when he realized Bunny wasn’t staring at him; she was staring just over his shoulder. Denny looked up. There was nothing there; the sky was still bright blue, and cloudless. He turned back and realized Bunny wasn’t looking at anything, because she wasn’t even looking at all. She was gazing skyward, unblinking, and her mouth was hanging open as she floated there, bloated in the water and bleached by the summertime sun. Something was very wrong.

“What is she doing?” he turned to ask Pete, but Pete was looking at Denny, just as lost. “Is she sick?”

Pete shook his head. He didn’t know.

“Should we help her?”

Pete just kept shaking his head.

“Pete!”

Pete didn’t answer. He just kept shaking his head, his mouth open, ears straight up in the air. Was he sick now, too? What was happening here?

Denny leaned over the side, saying, “Bunny come here.” He’d have to pull her into the boat and row them all to shore; get Pete and Bunny to the doctor. He ought to get himself checked too — his tummy felt funny, and his legs seemed to be shaking. “I’ll h-help you,” he stammered, reaching out a hand, but Bunny Fufu didn’t take it. So he reached a little further, desperately, grunting, “Bunny, come here, I’ll help you,” grabbing her by the cheeks, and pulling as hard as he could.

But no weight resisted him: Denny felt his own strength succeed over nothing, and it threw him backwards unexpectedly; he fell against the bottom of the boat, and Bunny Fufu fell in on top of him, slipping from his fingers and rolling off toward his feet.

Then it was chaos; the boat lurched sideways, almost capsizing, and Denny felt his head hit the wood with a heavy thump. His vision jolted as his teeth clicked together in his head, and a shock went up his spine as he fell upon his own tail. He cried out, biting his tongue, cat-brain overloaded all at once.

He lay there, not sure how long, trying to catch breath which wouldn’t come. His vision swam with stars and birds. There were clouds in the sky above him.

No…not clouds, and not in the sky…something was in his eyes. Denny Cat pawed at his nose, and his pads came away covered in something warm and fuzzy. Stuffing. He gave a cry of shock, shaking his paw, scrambling backwards, sitting up, and finally, looking down.

In the bottom of the boat lay the face of Bunny Fufu — but only the face.

Peter Rabbit began to scream.