Chapter 3: Crooked

The school bell chimes into life. Each classmate grabs their bag before darting haphazardly to the door, including Teagan, glancing at the glowering Ms Hayflower as she rushes past the desk. The pupils push, shove and barge carelessly to get out. A sudden almighty squeal echoes through the corridors. She clutches her crooked tail in pain after the door rebounds, Urso, standing behind her smirks, insincerely responding with:

“Oh, I’m so so sorry… It was a total accident, I was pushed.”

Unconvinced, her blood begins to boil, her little hands clench. She tries taking deep breaths to calm down, but her anger bubbles over and she launches her fist straight into Urso’s left cheekbone. Urso clutches his face in pain, the few other classmates left behind call for Ms Hayflower, who screams at Teagan, demanding she heads to the headmaster’s office immediately. Tail still clasped in her hands and her head hung low, she legs her way through the corridors as fast as she possibly can, which is difficult when the corridor resembles a tin of sardines. She makes it to the main doors and across the fields and makes her slow walk home. It’s dark, it’s starting to spit, a sea of umbrellas rise, they ebb and flow with every step. Teagan carries on swimming against the crowd, raindrops hitching a free ride in her hair and clothes. The white streetlights flicker into life, glittering off the water, lighting her path home. At the edge, she passes through the gate in the chain link fence, her soft feet meeting the grass; her lungs and senses, the caressing fragrance of petrichor. This moment of bliss was not to last. A tall, ghost-white buck rat in a deep red suit approaches, his bright fire-red hair freshly cut and brushed back. 43 years old and in good shape.

“Uh… Hi Daddy,” said Teagan.

“I’ve had a call from your teacher today, talking back, spreading lies, beating up your classmates and refusing to see your headmaster…” her father says.

“Hey, she’s the one spreading lies!” Teagan yells in disgust, “Urso slammed the door on my tail! It’s crooked! What if it deglov-”

“Shut up Teagan, just… Go home,” he says, rubbing his eyes and shaking his head, “I just can’t deal with your crap tonight,” and with an exhausted sigh, he walks away.

Teagan stomps off, tugging her hair in anger, walking past her two-tier static to an airstream caravan just beyond it. After a firm knock on the door, she is met by a black mole, a perfect white coat around his portly body.

“Hello Miss McCarthy, what can I do for you this evening?” greets Dr Hood with a pleasant smile.

“Urso trapped my tail in the door again…” said Teagan, gently rubbing the sore kink in her tail. “It’s going purple…” sorrowfully, she gazes down at the ground, her mind drifts off, going over what happened earlier that day. Dr Hood watches her, after a few seconds of silence, he reaches out his hand.

“Come on in then,” he says, a hint of sadness in his smile.

Inside, the caravan is immaculate and clean, there are small drawers and cupboards of varying sizes running the entire length, and a silver padded examination table at both ends, each with their own curtain, operating lamp and a little metal table. It has everything a doctor could need for tending to illnesses and injuries. Teagan takes a seat on one of the tables while Dr Hood puts on his glasses and a pair of thin white gloves, he then begins the examination. Teagan just sits there, twiddling her thumbs, staring down at her feet in silence.

“So… Uh… Have you seen Alroy since you got home?” he asks.

“Yeah… Daddy wasn’t too happy, ” she mumbles.

“More trouble at school?” he says.

“Mmm Hmm…” Teagan replies with a gentle nod, not even turning to look at the doctor.

“Don’t you tell your teachers?” he says, dabbing the broken skin on her tail with an antiseptic cotton bud.

“They won’t listen, I’m the bad one,” She says, flinching with each dab.

“You’re not, you’re really not,” he says, applying a tight bandage to the wound, “you’ll find someone who sees you for you. There, you’re all done.”

“Thanks,” She says, giving Dr Hood a hug. He hugs back and pats her softly on the head.

“You look tired, go get your tea and have a good sleep,” he says, smiling once again. He opens the door and they wish each other a good night.

Teagan walks home and cooks up a large pan of vegetable soup, some for now, some for freezing to have another day. Home safe, and a full tummy, she heads up to her room asking for the day to end. It doesn’t take long for her to drift off to sleep, which is good because she won’t be getting much sleep tonight.

Chapter 2.5: Meanwhile

“GET HIIIIIM!” calls the alligator Captain, taking pursuit alongside his troop of 10 armoured men of varying races, wielding swords, spears and bows.

The thieving rat makes a break for the village wall, lugging a tatty sack over his shoulder. Holding his paltry haul in his teeth, he leaps to the top of the nearest house, barely reaching, digging his claws into the thatched roof and pulling up before heading towards the edge of the village. The soldiers on the ground cease the chase and take aim with their spears and bows, launching bladed projectiles at the thief. A single arrow sliced against the thief’s thigh, stopping him only for a brief moment.

“REMOVING YOUR HANDS AREN’T ENOUGH TO COMPENSATE FOR YOUR CRIMES, IT’S TIME FOR THE GALLOWS! GIVE IN!”

Recovering from the initial sting of the wound, the thief dashes again, pouncing towards the high wall surrounding the village, clinging as hard as he can to the rough jagged stones. He climbs up, scrambling for his life, the clinking and clanking of arrows hitting the rock beside him. Finally, he reaches the top, looking up, he sees a lone guard on the walkway with a lit torch.

“Take that!” shouts the guard, beating the thief across the face with the torch, burning his fur, melting his whiskers and covering him in ash. The guard loses balance trying to grab the thief by the hair, nearly falling to his death over the wall. The thief seizes the opportunity to dash up, past the guard and leap off the other side into the glittering moat below.

The guard atop the wall rushes to see where the thief heads. Looking down, he only sees the disturbed water and a stream of bubbles emerging from a cloud of red slowly growing beneath.

“I guess that’s over,” the guard mutters under his breath, as he turns to report to the captain of their success.

Moments later the thief lunges out of the water, gasping desperately for air, before flopping exhausted onto the riverbank. His vision blurring with tears and fatigue, grasping at the grass tight in his fists and pounding on the dirt angrily, struggling to keep himself from screaming.

“I want to sleep, I don’t want to be here, I need to leave, can’t s… stay h-here,” he whimpers pulling himself to his feet and limping into the dead forest to the burrow in the ground he calls home. He collapses once again, onto a pile of dusty rags to rest and inspect his loot; wet bread, now-bruised fruit and a broken bottle that once held fresh-pressed tomato juice.

With very little choice he wolfs down what little food he has, and turns over to rest, falling asleep instantly despite every joint and muscle screaming with pain, his thigh still stinging and seeping with blood.

Praying tomorrow will be different…

Chapter 2: Welcome To Menthol City

A few steps into the city, just passing the broken “Welcome” sign. The nasty industrial fumes fill her lungs once again making them feel heavy and leaving a metallic bitterness on the back of her tongue. Coughing just makes it worse. She looks at the little watch on her right wrist, “Ten minutes?” she gasped, “I’m not going to make it!” Fast, faster and faster she ran, her pink scaled tail whipping left and right behind her, hearing the rush of the wind blast past her large round ears. She dashes nimbly, cutting it close leaping between the traffic and dodging the oil spills on the road.

Eventually, she comes to a tall grey concrete building, spanning wide, surrounded by small brown fields of prickly grass and the occasional lifeless tree. Entering in through the heavy double doors, she skips swiftly through the corridors to her classroom. A plain box with a concrete floor, the white plaster walls covered sparingly with “motivational” (more like threatening) posters and a large revolving blackboard.

“TEAGAN! You’re late again. Just because you’re one of those circus folk doesn’t mean you’re exempt from being disciplined for your behaviour within the city.” barked the old dog that was Ms Nora Hayflower, Teagan’s form room teacher. A tall black, lanky mutt of unknown breed, with a white mane like fuzz around her shoulders, and a foul temperament. Clean and smartly dressed, but by no means approachable.

“I’m sorry, Miss,” Teagan mumbles nervously lowering her head, eyes glancing up at the other classmates.

“Hey RAT! Come sit with me.” invited Urso, a young bear, turning to snigger with his pals.

“Not if you’re going to start plucking my scales agai-”

“JUST SIT DOWN TEAGAN!” shouts Ms Hayflower.

Almost in a panic, Teagan takes the seat and mentally prepares herself for the torment of her classmates.

“Right… May we begin now, Miss McCarthy?” Ms Hayflower growls.

“Y… Yes… Miss,” said Teagan.

“Thank you…” she snaps before turning away and sitting at her desk, “Our headmaster has requested that all teachers assist in clearing up a little rumour that’s been making its way around Menthol, for the safety of the students. The rumour in question is that there are other colonies… Civilisations out there other than our own city, what I’m trying to say is… They don’t exist.”

A hum of many whispers fills the classroom, emanating from disconcerted and dissatisfied faces. Students leaning in close, heads together, murmuring confused sentences that together formed unintelligible noise.

“QUIET!” she bellows, abruptly silencing the buzzing voices, students launch themselves back into their seats. “This is for your safety, do not go out there, every person that has ever left has never come back, there’s nothing to be found out there.”

“It may be treacherous, but it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing out there!” Teagan replies, before suddenly holding her breath and covering her lips with her little pink hands.

Subtle gasps can be heard across the classroom.

“Excuse me? Do you want to come up here and teach? You obviously know so much more about everything than I do…” Hayflower scornfully responds.

Teagan lowers her head, clasping her hands tight together, breathing heavily, “But we can’t be alone in the world… If we can survive, others can too!”

“Enough!” said Ms Hayflower as she slams a detention slip down on the desk in front of her, “You will give up your lunch today, and I expect you to write down ‘We are alone’ until you get it into your thick rat skull, have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Miss…” Teagan mumbles.

As soon as Ms Hayflower looks away, a ball of paper is thrown at Teagan’s head, she looks back.

“Well done, Freak Show! She’ll be unbearable for the whole day.” jabs Urso, before kicking the back of her chair.

Three hours later and it’s time for break, the students stand up and leave the classroom in their usual noisy fashion, Teagan follows. Ms Hayflower stands in front of her as she heads for the door, passes her a piece of chalk and points at the blackboard.

“Fill it, and write small,” she demands before turning, leaving and closing the door.

Teagan clears the board, puts the white chalk to the black… and begins.

We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone We are alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am alone I am al-

She drops to her knees, and quietly… she weeps…