Tuesday 9 April 2024

SHORT STORY: Today is the Day

This tale can be found in Jared Woods' most recent publication, Licking the Bottom of the Love Jar. It is a collection of short love stories which are as magical as they are upsetting. You should totally get it! Available on Amazon paperback and Kindle!

The moment I opened my third drawer and came upon my lucky Woof, The Justice Hound shirt, I knew today was the day. There it was, as clear as water, a sign from the cosmos, placing that exact garment on the top of the pile, ensuring no mixed messages came through. Yes, today was the day! The day I finally asked Kiah out on a date. Did she even know my name? Maybe not. But if there was any doubt that the stars had aligned in my favour, they were defeated by the Titan Blaze action figure, who tumbled from the cereal box and sunk into my corn flakes like quicksand. Oh, today was the day, alright! The day I finally asked Kiah out on a date.

I danced out my front door and plucked a rose from Mrs Belinda Grove's garden along the way to school. With great care, I slipped it into my backpack, protected between my cling-wrapped egg sandwich and my geography textbook. My dance resumed as the flower's sweet smell blessed my aura, and I could feel its eagerness, ready to leap out during the second period and wow Kiah in front of everyone.

"Hey, Andrew," my guardian spirit, Jasper, spoke up. "Mmmmmaybe the rose is a bit much?"

"Do you think?" I paused my skip.

Jasper nodded in contemplation, and I took this seriously. I was forever grateful that my assigned guardian spirit was a fox. Foxes were particularly clever, and his every advice appeared highly calculated. He had never let me down before, so I decided that, yes, perhaps the rose was a bit much.

"You're right," I concurred. "It's a little cliche, anyway!"

I removed the rose from my bag and stuck it into a passing mailbox, hoping whoever lived there got some love from it. I then resumed my onward bounce, each step propelled by joy as Jasper scampered behind.


Hallways clamoured, and the bell rang us into the first period. History! As always, I was dead on time and took my seat before anyone else did. The other kids followed suit, the assorted guardian spirits squeezing beside their humans. That is, except for Jasper. He was squirming all over the show, panting erratically, adjusting his position repeatedly without settling. Mr Leonard started the lesson by discussing the Antarctic War, which I was interested in but constantly distracted by Jasper's restlessness.

"What is up with you?" I whispered under my breath.

"I'm not sure about the shirt anymore," Jasper responded.

"What?" I couldn't fathom what I was hearing. "But it's Woof, The Justice Hound! My lucky shirt! We agreed that this was the shirt for the day!"

"I know, but it's a tad silly-looking," Jasper replied. "I'm just not sure Kiah will get it. Maybe we should change."

"Into what??" I questioned too loudly.

"Andrew, is there a problem with your fox?" Mr Leonard interrupted his lecture to address me. Everyone turned to look, and I felt embarrassed, crossing my arms to cover Woof from their stares.

"No, sir."

"Good, then keep it down."

I flashed Jasper a fierce frown, and he curled into a ball, pretending to behave, although I could sense the tension vibrating from his body. I wasn't sure what had gotten into him, but it stirred emotions of anger in me. Why today? Any day but today!

I looked down at my shirt. Woof, The Justice Hound. It was my absolute favourite TV show growing up. But maybe it was a little silly at this age.

The history lesson slowed into a pained drone, and I couldn't focus on anything except my looping thoughts questioning my plan. By the time the ringing ushered in the second period, so many nerves had overcome Jasper and me that my stomach was wobbly, and I had to detour to the bathroom. Thankfully, I made it to maths with minutes to spare and noted Kiah's seat was empty. Perfect. That is exactly how I envisioned it. She will walk through the door, and I would interject, detailing my feelings and asking her if she would be so kind as to go on a date with me.

"I don't reckon we should do this," Jasper frantically yapped.

"Huh? Why not?"

"Because we might get rejected! Think about that! And then everyone will laugh at you, and it'll be mortifying. Just look at her, Andrew!"

As if on cue, Kiah walked through the doorframe, taller than everyone else, zapping my thoughts dry. The room grew warmer as her blonde hair waved as if a slight breeze followed only her around. Her high-pitched laughter exposed her top incisors, overlapping by a sliver of an inch. Her vibrant passerine guardian spirit bird excitedly circled her midsection. Her orange nail polish had chipped away from every finger except her pinkies, where she had applied a more recent shade of blue. Just look at her, indeed.

Jasper swiftly brought me back to the now. "No, you'll never have a chance with a girl like that. Who are you fooling? She wouldn't be seen dead with someone as chubby as you."

I instinctively touched my stomach with both hands. Kiah sat at her desk, rapidly chatting with her immediate squad. I sighed. Today was not the day. I looked at my hands, still on my tummy, and I felt citrus in my eyes. Jasper sensed my discomfort and, in what I assumed was guilt, quickly rectified his former statement.

"Not that you're chubby, Andrew! Just that you're bigger than the type of people Kiah goes for, that's all".

That didn't help, so I lifted my maths book with one hand to cover as much of my face as possible while strategically resting my cheek on my other hand, wiping away the tiny tears that leaked from my system. Jasper affectionately placed his paw on my leg.

"You're doing the right thing," he affirmed. "She doesn't even know your name."


My name is Andrew. I'm a 13-year-old boy attending Oceanwood Faith Academy school. Here I am, holding a soggy egg sandwich, sitting alone on the corner of the playground. Don't get me wrong, I have friends. Like Chad and Roger. I just didn't feel up for hanging out with them very much today. Something seemed horribly different. There was an element of sadness to everything. The egg on my sandwich was sad. The line of ants walking before me was moving slower than usual because they were sad. Even Jasper seemed sad. He noticed me looking at him and used the opportunity to speak up.

"Everybody probably thinks you're a loser, you know. Sitting by yourself."

"I don't understand. Why are you being so mean today?" I asked.

"Me? I've never been anything but good to you. But I just gotta be honest, buddy. You're acting irrationally if you believe Kiah is going to magically see something in you that nobody else sees."

The tears threatened my eyes again, but I forced them back. "You said I had a chance just a few days ago!"

"Yeah, well. That was then. I've had time to reconsider. I don't want to watch you get hurt."

I tried to think of a response, but nothing came, and then it felt too late. Instead, I took a bite of my sandwich, which tasted of too much mayo. I looked out to the field where my schoolmates played, jumping over stuff or engaging in joyful conversations. Jason's monkey was helping him up a tree. Rebecca's peacock was perched upon her head, spreading its tail as if an eccentric hat, much to her friends' glee. I wrapped the remainder of my sandwich up for later and exhaled.

"I wish you were like the other spirit guardians," I muttered.

"Now who's being mean," Jasper responded.


Jasper and I didn't make eye contact for the rest of the school day, but I observed he had a slight limp on the walk home. I casually queried it, and he snapped with some nonsensical animal sound, setting my emotions off again. When we finally arrived at the house, I was fuming. I stormed past my mother, who greeted me with her usual cheery self, but our moods were far too incompatible, and I did not respond, opting to take my rage into my room and slamming the door to ensure everyone was aware of my current state.

I fell asleep with my face down on the pillow and awoke gasping for air. Jasper was timidly scratching at my door, so I let him in. He retreated under my bed as he often did, and we exchanged no words. I lay on my back and wrapped my blanket of misery around myself. If I refused to remove this blanket, no one would ever see my gross body again. The term "chubby" was a kinder term for "fat". Everyone knew that.

My mother called me to dinner, but I shouted back that I wasn't hungry. I wasn't. I could hear by her tone she was concerned about me, but Mom was never good at talking. So she left it, and I watched my room fall dark as the sun set on the horrible Thursday. I dozed off again, happy to see the light go, eager for a fresh start in the morning.

I woke up several hours later with a groaning hollow in my stomach. I was so starved that my fingers were quivering, and my head throbbed. I sat up and found Jasper sitting near the bed, staring at me. His eyes shone with a green hue, and he was growling softly.

"Look at what you've done," he grunted. "You skipped dinner and turned us into feeble beings."

"I wasn't hungry then," I said as I stood up with a wobble. "Don't worry. I'll find some food."

I opened my door without a sound and listened for my mother's reliable snoring, which ripped through the night like thunder, contradicting her softspoken daytime demeanour. I made my way to the kitchen, pausing when my belly rumbled out, but its complaints were no match for my mother's roars. I checked the fridge, where my mom had left me a plate of dry steak, potatoes, and mushy peas. I considered it momentarily, then moved to the candy cabinet, helping myself to a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar. I tiptoed back to my room and had hardly removed the chocolate wrapper before the entire thing was in my mouth. It was too big to chew properly, and I had to work my tongue and teeth to gradually soften the material into a malleable consistency. But as soon as there was space, I began shovelling the crisps into any available slot, crunching the sugar and salt together. Jasper watched me with disgust.

"And you wonder why you're chubby."

He crept beneath the bed like before, as I pretended not to be hurt. I knew he was right, but I finished the crips anyway, ensuring I got all the crumbs and then licking the packaging clean. I lay back, overcome by a guilt so horrendous that I struggled to fall asleep. But at least I wasn't hungry anymore.


The morning overtook me as I forgot to set an alarm during last night's disruptions. I awoke in a panic and threw my closest clothes on, racing out the door without breakfast or my routine shower. Only halfway down the road did I realise I was wearing my "lucky" Woof, the Justice Hound shirt again, to which Jasper rolled his eyes as he darted alongside me. Even in the frenzy, I could see he had changed. His fur was darker, and his usual direct spring was awkwardly meandering. But I didn't have the mental resources to worry about that now.

I burst into the first period 20 minutes late, out of breath and overflowing with apologies. Ms Kernick took one look at me and offered mercy, letting me off with a warning because I had never been late before. I took my seat and let my poor heart settle, noticing only in this stillness how bad I smelt. My desk partner, Charl, grabbed his nose in response. His iguana spirit reptile giggled. Jasper and I were very ashamed.


I remembered I had emergency deodorant in my locker and went there between classes. I bathed myself in the spray when Chad and Roger turned the corner.

"Woah there, Andrew! Leave some ozone for the rest of us," Chad teased as he waved away an imaginary cloud. I didn't respond.

"Where were you at lunch yesterday?" Roger queried.

"I was busy," I spoke through gritted teeth.

"Alright, Mr Popular," Chad said as he leaned against the lockers. "Well, I hope you're not too busy for tomorrow's board game night! Rumour has it I may have sourced a copy of..."

"I'm not coming," I interrupted.

"What?" Chad and Roger comically said at the same time. I slammed my locker shut.

"I'm not coming, ok!?" I spat. "My life doesn't revolve around you guys, and I'm sick of this!"

I stormed off, leaving my two best friends too stunned for words. Even Roger's porcupine appeared astonished. Jasper trotted next to me.

"Yeah, real smooth, big guy. Reject the only mates you have. Great strategy."

"Shut up!" I responded, and Jasper hissed.


I managed to zone out for the rest of the day and avoid attention before the final bell rang. I walked home, a stew of feelings curdling inside of me until I couldn't decide whether to scream or cry. Turns out, it was both as I entered my house and was immediately accused by my mother of stealing midnight snacks. As evidence, she held up the wrappers I'd forgotten to dispose of that morning, and I felt like a cornered rat. My only defence was offence, and I yelled at her that I hated mushy peas, and I hated school, and I hated this stupid town. And when that hatred boiled into tears, I rushed to my room to hide, bawling into my pillow.

Some moments passed before I heard my mother's timid voice coming from behind the door.

"Andrew, I don't know what's happening, but whatever it is, you can always talk to me about anything."

I knew it took a lot for her to say that, and my gut softened. I sat up and looked at Jasper, who was a mess. His once ginger fur was dark brown and thinning. His teeth were exposed as shiny saliva dripped from his jaws during difficult exhales.

"I'm going to tell Mom about you," I said. "You're sick, and you're making me sick."

"Don't you dare," he wheezed. "Your poor mother, she has done nothing to deserve a child like you. Can't you see she's already suffering without your dad? And he left all because of you, Andrew. You and your fat face."

"That's not true," I defended.

"It is true, and you know it. They were so happy before you. You're the reason they divorced. You're the reason your mother is sad."

"Am not!" I wailed as fresh tears joined my voice, and I quickly lay down, turning away from Jasper so he couldn't witness my scrunching features.

"Pathetic," he mumbled as he crawled beneath the bed again, and I wondered how long it would take for me to die if I just refused to get off this mattress ever again. Maybe I would disappear like I never happened, and then the world would be a better place without me.


Much to my disappointment, I awoke Saturday morning alive. Mom went to work, which suited me fine as I plodded to the couch and collapsed to watch TV, only moving to top up my junk food supply or use the toilet. The phone rang, but I never answered it, and nobody left a message. When Mom drove up, I hastily shoved the candy wrappers deep into the trash and retreated to my room, where I remained until I fell asleep.

On Sunday, Mom asked me to help her with some cleaning chores, so I faked a stomach ache, and she left me alone. The phone rang again, and my mom called for me that it was Roger, but I claimed I was too sick to take it, and she got rid of him. I read comics and snacked on my secret junk pile as the hours fell off the clock and night rotated around. At a later point, I heard a strange noise coming from under the bed. I bent over to check, and there was Jasper, except he was unrecognisable. His oily fur was pitch black and stuck down, outlining a skeletal frame. Yellow frothed at his mouth as he gnawed on his leg, growling in a language I did not recognise. Suddenly, he looked up at me, and our eyes locked together, both of us feeling caught, neither of us able to look another way. Our frozen stare finally broke when Jasper spoke up.

"Everyone hates you, and you deserve it."

He went back to gnawing his leg as I slid away in terror.


Monday morning arrived, and now I felt sick for real because the gnashing jaw beneath my bed kept me awake all night. I contemplated skipping school, but I could no longer stand that noise. With a heavy sadness, I got up as if it was a typical day, brushing my teeth for the first time since Friday. But my movements were so sluggish that I decided to catch the bus rather than walk. Jasper did not join me, which was a relief, but I could hear his every word haunting my skull.

I forgot my biology textbook, and although Ms Kernick was sweet about it, Jasper's imaginary voice called me a brainless fool.

I spent most of my lunch break on the toilet as my stomach cried in pain while Jasper's voice reminded me of my weekend of gorging on junk food because I was fat. Because I was an idiot.

By the time I was seated in fourth-period history, my mind had picked my nerves apart, and I wanted to yell myself out of existence.

That's why, when Jasper arrived, scratching at the history class' window with broken claws trying to get my attention, I lost it. I shouted the worst cuss word I knew before throwing my pencil case at him, resulting in a loud crack in the glass that touched both sides of the frame. Jasper darted away as the students gasped and then exploded into laughter. So I don't blame Mr Leonard for giving me detention. I blamed Jasper, and I blamed my fat stupid self.

The school day crawled on, and Jasper caught up to me eventually. He had chewed most of the fur off his left hind leg and stank like rancid meat. People were noticing, and he told me it was my fault.

Detention came and went, which Jasper used to highlight every dumb thing I'd said or done since I was five years old, and then it was time to go home. I was too tired, and my stomach still ached, so I opted to get the bus back.

It turned out to be the better choice, as a few minutes under the shelter, the skies abruptly tore open with an unseasonal downpour. I sat there silently as Jasper somehow framed this as my fault again.

"Everyone saw you shout like a baby. What do they think of you? Suppose you had just acted like a human being for once in your useless life. Then we'd be home already, far from the rain, and you could be shoving your hamster cheeks with all the sugar in the world while I could be resting in my special place. But no! You are incapable of anything but utter failure..."

This vocal onslaught appeared endless until the sound of steps slapping the wet tar escalated in volume. We both looked up to see a figure racing towards the safety of the bus stop shelter. I groaned. The last thing I could handle was the presence of another person, but once they got closer and removed their hood, I nearly choked. There stood Kiah, her hair a wet mess and her slightly disrupted mascara resembling tiny black tears. She had never looked more beautiful.

"Oh my gosh, where did this rain come from?" she laughed as she sat down three feet from me. I responded with a little chuckle, but any words were throttled below my throat. Her bird stood on the floor between her shoes and shook itself dry. I felt Jasper cowering behind my leg as my body stiffened in awkwardness. The noise of the rain amplified the cringe of our silence as I scanned my brain for something clever to say.

From my peripheral, I watched Kiah rummaging through her bag before she produced a sandwich. She took one section and extended the other to me.

"You want half a sammie?"

I looked at the bread in her hand coming towards me. This piece was still wrapped in plastic, a noted courtesy of someone who didn't touch the food they shared.

"Don't let her see you eat; she'll think you're disgusting," Jasper whined beneath the bench.

"Woah, woah, woah!" Kiah pulled back, looking at me with concern. "What the heck? You can't let your spirit animal talk to you like that!"

"W-what?" I stammered, suddenly disorientated.

Kiah bit into her sandwich and then spoke while chewing. "Our guardians are supposed to lift us up! Make us feel stoked, you know?" She swallowed as she leaned forward to examine Jasper, who continued to cower the best he could behind my calves.

"Yeah, your dude looks super rotten. You've gotta fix that."

"But how? How do I do that?" I asked, unable to hide a desperate quiver in my delivery.

"Well, for starters, notice that he's shut up now. See? That's because spoiling spirits can't thrive when you socialise."

I glanced at Jasper, who seemed caught off guard, wanting to object but unable to do so. This was very interesting, which I expressed with a "Huh!"

"Another thing you can do," Kiah continued, "is eat half of this sammie with me."

Kiah extended the food again, provoking Jasper to rediscover his voice.

"Bread makes you fat!"

"Shush you!" Kiah demanded. "I'll have you know this is cucumber and dill mix on whole wheat bread. Perfectly healthy and good for your tummy!"

Kiah's extended arm had just about pushed the sandwich into my mouth, so I gratefully accepted it with two hands and took a bite. I munched the soft texture from one side of my molars to the other, as the taste penetrated my tongue. It was the yummiest thing I could have ever imagined. It was the sandwich of Kiah. I closed my eyes with an "mmmm!"

"Told ya!" she laughed. "It's the dill mix. That is the secret to everything!"

The bus arrived, and we got on. Kiah's bird fluttered around for a minute before resting on her shoulder. Jasper sulked behind us and stayed out of sight underneath our seat. I made a joke about how I'd prefer it if it were literally raining cats and dogs, and Kiah genuinely laughed, exposing her top incisors overlapping by a sliver of an inch. My stiff posture loosened into a softer comfort.

As we neared my house, I asked her for more tips about dealing with Jasper.

"Hmmm," she thought for a minute. "Well, I'll tell you what I do whenever old Betsy is acting up here. I just go for a walk!" Betsy whistled loudly in response.

"A walk, huh?"

"That's it! It clears my head and calms her down. Works every time."

I thanked her as we reached my stop. I started to get off as she called out, "Hey, man! I'm sorry, what's your name again?"

"It's Andrew."

"Andrew! I remember! I'm Kiah, by the way."

I smiled, then waved. "Nice to meet you, Kiah!"

I got off the bus, and the last thing I heard was her angelic voice saying, "I'll see you in maths tomorrow, Andrew!"

The skip in my step sloshed the mud beneath my feet as Jasper struggled to keep up.

"Told you she didn't know your name," he managed to splutter.

"She knows it now!" I replied as I reached the door, kicking off my shoes and entering with a newfound eagerness for life.

I spent the rest of the evening chatting with my mom, helping her to make dinner and my lunch for tomorrow. My chirpy demeanour took her aback, but she didn't question it, and we enjoyed one another's company. And what's more, Jasper did not get a word in. Kiah was right!

I went to bed early and slept well until around 4:30 am when I awoke to Jasper angrily chewing himself below my bed again. An anxious pang struck me, but the thought of Kiah quickly replaced it. I immediately got up.

"C'mon, Jasper," I announced. "We're going for a walk."

"Don't be ridiculous," he huffed. "You really believe you've found some magic cure for your problems because Kiah feigned sympathy for your pitiful life? Everyone just feels sorry for you!"

I put on my jacket, and with a deep breath, I responded, "Well, you don't have to come then. I'll go by myself."

I softly exited my room as Jasper whispered after me, "People will see you walking around at this time! They'll think you're crazy!"

I kept moving, gliding past my mother's snores, out the front door, slipping on my wet shoes and continuing into the world. It had stopped raining, and the front gardens of every house glowed from the hydration. The waking sun peaked over the horizon, painting the sky pink, and sweet oxygen cleared my thoughts away. Jasper soon trotted up next to me, and I didn't make a big deal of it. Instead, I slowed my pace, and we strolled silently, taking a wide circle around the neighbourhood until we reached home again before Mom's alarm went off.

"That was a nice walk," I thought out loud.

"It was a nice walk," Jasper agreed, which surprised me. I snuck a glance and noticed a small streak of red fur had developed down his spine.

I got ready and then ambled to school. Jasper hurried along and said some nasty things, but I simply changed the topic or daydreamed with better thoughts. I saw Kiah later in maths, and while we didn't speak, she flashed me a smile, which was all I needed. At lunch, I sat with Chad and Roger, and the three of us acted like nothing ever happened, which was why I considered them good friends. I ate the sandwich Mom and I had made last night. We had no dill mix, so it was just cucumber on brown bread. It wasn't very tasty. Kiah was right; the dill mix was the secret to everything. But I finished it regardless.

After school, Jasper and I took a longer route home. I spent the evening chatting with Mom again and helped her steam a colourful collection of vegetables. After we ate, I attempted another early night, and this time, Jasper and I slept straight through with no gnawing noises. The following day I observed how his raw leg had scabbed over, and tufts of hair were regrowing.

He turned to me with a strange expression and said, "I feel nervous for some reason."

I patted him on the head. His coat was softening, and his foul smell was far fainter.

"You may be nervous, but you look great!" I responded with a wink, and he snickered.

Each morning was an improvement on the previous. We went for extra walks every afternoon. We convinced Mom to throw away the junk food. We spent as many hours with Chad and Roger and their animal guardians as we could schedule. Jasper was soon back to his former encouraging self, beaming with energy. Heck, I felt that same energy! I'd even lost a couple of kilos!

Some weeks later, I was at my locker when Kiah bounced past. Without breaking stride, she said, "Yo, Andrew, your spirit dude seems much better! Keep it up!"

I smiled as I watched her bound away, but my mouth slowly dropped as my eyes widened. I glanced at Jasper, who looked equally stunned. My grin returned.

"You know what?" I said.

"No!" he objected.

"I think..." I continued, "Yup, I'm pretty sure... that today is the day."

"No," he repeated. "Listen, Andrew. Wait. Think about this logically. What if she rejects you?"

"She might," I responded as my steps moved to find her. "But, you know what? I'm gonna try anyway."

Monday 19 February 2024

SHORT STORY: The Natural Order of Things

This tale can be found in Jared Woods' most recent publication, Licking the Bottom of the Love Jar. It is a collection of short love stories which are as magical as they are upsetting. You should totally get it! Available on Amazon paperback and Kindle!

Nobody noticed Jordan sneak out of the warren on the first night. Such a triumph fed into an arrogance that begets sloppiness. His second time was clumsier, and faint noises disturbed the slumber of his little sister, Cashew. She held no secrets the following daylight, whispering her witness to Kale, who, in turn, notified the elders.

The rabbits were sceptical. Jordan was never one for dishonesty, while Cashew had a reputation for dreaming the wildest of visions. But when Jordan crept from his bed on the third night and bounced out the hatch, the fake snores of the seniors ceased as they sat up, dismayed by the truth of the tale. Their anxious murmurs spoke over each other, amplifying in volumes until they roused many newborns, crying in the dark from confusion.

It was decided that Daddy Walter and his eldest son, Basil, would track Jordan through the forest to reveal the meaning of his strange behaviour. Granny Ginger said she had a bad feeling about this, but she had a bad feeling about everything. So, with great caution, father and firstborn left the protection of their home to venture out into the nocturnal reflection of Clayfield Woodlands.

Rabbits know rabbit tracks, and they pursued Jordan's shallow prints pushed into the soft dirt. Owls interrupted the silence as beetles scattered aside, the black world seemingly aware of these unusual midnight hoppers. Daddy Walter kept up a speedy start-stop motion, sprinting beneath the moonlight into the shadows faster than most eyes could detect. Basil matched the pace, but he was skittish, ears darting in erratic directions, unsure where his focus would be the smartest to fall. Luckily, the trail did not lead them far away, the two rabbits hopping up Eden Hill, slipping behind some bushes and then trying their best to make sense of the horror before them.

There was Jordan, perched on the top of the hill, gazing upwards at the constellations. But he was not alone. His excited speech and laughter were shared by a snake many times Jordan's size as they both pointed out star patterns and agreed on their significance. Walter and Basil were frozen stiff with their ears flat against their bodies, unequipped to register this scene of unimaginable converse. But when the snake's tail gently slid around Jordan's shoulders, Basil's fight mode initiated, and he bounded forward, baring as much of his incisors as his gums would allow while growling in a surprisingly deep tone. The snake's head whipped back to note this incoming attack and then zipped away into the bushes, the shimmer of its moonlit scales gone in an instant.

Basil embraced Jordan, thankful to the ancestors for his safety. Jordan awkwardly reciprocated the hug, feigning appreciation, but when his eyes met his father's, he understood he had been caught. The three returned to the warren and rested without a word.

Between sunrise and breakfast, Basil was already exaggerating his heroic story as one for the Book of Legends, and the children crowded him with lights in their pupils. Daddy Walter used this opportunity to call Jordan aside and quietly scolded him for his foolishness. Without saying as much, Daddy Walter made it clear that snakes and rabbits were not to mingle under any circumstances, as snakes were their deathly enemies, and other such relationships would disrupt the natural order of things. Jordan took the words well and thanked his father for the wisdom. The two hugged, and Daddy Walter was satisfied to write the episode off as teenaged curiosity, a characteristic he himself was known for at that age.

Three nights came and went without incident, and routine sleep was enjoyed by everyone. However, on the fourth, Jordan carefully rolled from his patch and inched his paws to the exit. It may have been a clean getaway too, but in his excitement, he brushed a stone from the wall, softly pattering to the floor. Jordan froze to gauge any stirring, then moved onward when the chorus of breathing did not waver. But like before, Cashew's dreams betrayed Jordan, and this time, she went straight to wake the adults to report what had happened.

Upon Eden Hill, Jordan and Crowley, the snake, held one another, expressing their emotions through tight squeezes, confessing how much they had missed these starlight moments over the previous days. They reminisced humorously about their first chance meeting, when Jordan was foraging for gazanias and had accidentally slipped down Crowley's burrow, facing fangs, certain he was a goner. Instead, Crowley was sympathetic, and he helped Jordan out to freedom. The unlikely friendship quickly evolved into a romantic connection, a love they both yearned for, yet a love neither family would understand. The recent exposure had threatened the affinity they were only beginning to explore, and they agreed to be extra vigilant with their future endeavours. But this concurrence had just as soon proved futile, as Daddy Walter loudly interrupted the exchange, sending Crowley darting out of sight again while Jordan trembled with guilt.

When Daddy Walter's teeth dragged Jordan into the warren by his ear, the whole household was awake and pacing. Daddy Walter was enraged, announcing that their son was engaging in interspecies relationships with a snake, of all creatures. A tirade of fury was discharged upon Jordan from the male rabbits while his mother cried tears of unprecedented sorrow. Jordan was overwhelmed at first, but the ceaseless offence boiled into a frenzy of his own, and he shouted that he was in love with Crowley, "love is love!", and they were destined to be together. Reactions varied from condescending laughter to declarations of nausea until Daddy Walter sent Jordan to bed to await his discipline in the morrow. Only the newborns slept that night.

The minute daylight broke, Daddy Walter took Jordan to the Head Bear, retelling the sinful story with disgust. Head Bear nodded slowly, occasionally looking towards Jordan, whose gaze drooped low from the weight of shame. After brief contemplation, Head Bear agreed that this was an outrageous crime against Clayfield Woodlands and would require additional council attention. He called an emergency meeting the following afternoon, and many animals turned up, having caught the gossip from the wind, wanting to affirm such an abomination firsthand. Both Jordan and Crowley were in attendance, and they shared distressed glances. Crowley's scales displayed fresh streaks of injury where his parents had let him know their standpoint.

The council heard the tale, and each member took their turn to express disbelief in a relationship so disgraceful and repulsive. Suggestions for a punishment ranged from beatings to exile, but Clements Jackal spoke with compassion, asking the council to consider the adolescent ages while underhandedly implying that parental neglect may be a factor. Jackal suggested a form of experimental conversion therapy, where a suitable variation of virtuous education could realign these children to societal norms. Certain representatives felt this was too lenient, but Head Bear appreciated the hopeful tenderness of the idea, and he outlined a program.

Jordan and Crowley were assigned to opposite sides of the forest to undergo their respective treatments. These lessons mainly comprised of senior members from their species who emphasised traditional values and folklore myths, teaching these misguided youths about the importance of continuing bloodlines. Jordan yielded to the disciplines rather quickly. Crowley was more stubborn, but as the months rolled by, the regular reports were positive, and the frantic chitchat died down until the woodland had largely forgotten the matter. Progress became so promising that Jordan was allowed weekend visitations back at the warren, and the relief from his absence overpowered the scandal, so much so that even Daddy Walter was happy to ignore the past and welcome his son home.

That was until the fateful evening when a curious fawn overheard some birds chirping that they'd glimpsed the infamous interspecies duo snuggling in a cave by Stellar River. The fawn snooped to the region, stunned to verify the rumour. She darted away to deliver the word despite the couple's cries for confidentiality. Jordan and Crowley knew there was no lawful way around this, and they made a break to escape the forest forever, only to be caught by a command of racoons sent to retrieve the sinners. A trial was called immediately, and the whole of Clayfield Woodlands dropped their business to attend. Even the nighttime critters were woken by the clamour and forced their groggy bodies to the gathering. The fury of the council was blind to any sympathies, and Head Bear was quick to accept a new ruling: the first Clayfield death sentence in over two centuries.

Public response was mixed. Some were enthusiastic about a verdict they deemed overdue since the initial hearing, but an underground opposition also grew in urgent volume. It came to light when a tortoise and beaver protested the judgement by publicly kissing in front of the sacred Five-Finger Tree. These two were imprisoned, but their stunt triggered a mass reaction, where creatures of all kinds marched through the shrubbery, chanting that it was an individual's right to love whichever species one chooses, for "love is love", and it was nobody's business. Acts of defiance were becoming increasingly courageous, with widespread displays of interspecies affection and even an incident of a weasel spending a night in a woodpecker's nest, helping to warm her newly laid eggs.

Endless council meetings took place, desperately seeking a way to cease this immoral hysteria, but each suggestion was rejected as either too extreme or impracticable, while every session was inevitably interrupted by loud demonstrations, calling for acceptance where "love is love is love is love". The most significant disruption came when Clements Jackal declared her resignation from the council and was soon seen on the other side, fighting for the freedom of all relationships.

What appeared as an irresolvable conflict ultimately ended with the worst of tragedies. Distracted by the strife, everyone ignored the warnings from neighbouring woodlands and were not equipped when the human machines tore through their homes. Trees that once kept families safe were demolished in a swoop, soil upturned into inhabitable sludge. Creatures scattered to the outskirts of the forest. Many risked their luck and relocated to yonder lands. But even more were killed. Both the iconic kissing protesters, the tortoise and beaver, were killed. Clements Jackal was killed. Jordan was killed.

During the final days of the Clayfield Woodland massacre, Daddy Walter located a shelter within a cave by Stellar River. Having long lost his family, he was appreciative to find Head Bear's familiar face hiding here too. At first, their shared trauma prevented any conversation, but as the sun fell away and the monstrous machinery hushed their violent upheaval for the day, Head Bear found some words.

"You know, it pains me to admit this," he said. "But it was not until the plunder of our forest that I realised every creature—you, me, the birds, the snake, the boy—every creature was part of the same singular entity. Even in our differences, our unity made us the forest."

Daddy Walter slowly nodded in agreement. "I understand. We were so absorbed by our customs that we became our own enemy. We forgot that we were Clayfield as one. And now everything is gone."

The two sat listening to the water gushing by, punctuated by several birds and insects calling out for help, the night quieter than it had ever been. Finally, Head Bear laid back, exhausted and drifting to sleep, offering one conclusive mumble.

"I suppose those crazy kids were right in the end. Love is love. And love is always better than hate."

Daddy Walter swallowed the dry lump of loss in his throat as the warning of a tear stung his eye. He echoed the sentiment.

"Love is always better than hate."

This tale can be found in Jared Woods' most recent publication, Licking the Bottom of the Love Jar. It is a collection of short love stories which are as magical as they are upsetting. You should totally get it! Available on Amazon paperback and Kindle!