"Sugared slug soup," said Ereth the porcupine without looking up from the lump of salt over which he was slobbering. "I don't believe it."
"I'm afraid it's true," said the deer mouse Poppy to her old friend. "It's very upsetting. The kind of thing that makes me wonder if I've been a bad parent."
Poppy and her husband, Rye, a golden mouse, had gone over to Ereth's smelly hollow log for a talk. The closest of friends, they lived deep within Dimwood Forest, where the tall trees reached into the sweet air and carpeted the earth below with soft shadows.
"Now Poppy," said Rye, "the rest of our children are doing fine."
Poppy sighed. "I suppose one failure out of a litter of eleven isn't bad," she said. Her round, white belly had grown plump of late. Though her eyes were usually bright and her whiskers full, now those eyes appeared rather dull and full of worry, while her whiskers were somewhat limp.
"You made your first mistake by naming him Ragweed Junior," Ereth grumbled between licks of salt. "Most juniors," he said, "resent the name. Or should."
"I wish he did resent it," said Poppy. "Junior's problem is that he loves being a new Ragweed."
"Gangrenous gym shorts," said Ereth. "Was there ever a mouse -- dead or alive -- who caused more fuss than the first Ragweed?"
"I'm afraid," said Rye, "Junior wants to be what he thinks Ragweed was. It's all those stories he's heard about my brother."
"Though of course," Poppy said, "Junior never knew Ragweed. All he knows is that Ragweed was unusual." She reached out, took Rye's paw, and squeezed it with affection. "It was Ragweed who brought us together. And if it hadn't been for him," she reminded Ereth, "I doubt you and I would have met."
"I suppose," said Ereth. He put his salt lump down reluctantly. "Just what the flea fudge has Junior done?"
"He used to be a cheerful, chatty, wonderfully open young mouse," said Poppy. "Nowadays it's a constant frown."
"If I say yes," Rye went on, pulling at his long whiskers, "he says no. If I say no, he says yes. When he says anything more than that, it's mostly Leave me alone.' "
"He has become rather rude," said Poppy.
"Almost impossible to get him out of bed before noon," added Rye.
"I doubt," said Poppy, "that he washes his face more than once a week, even though he's constantly being reminded." Her own ears were large and dark, with a nose, toes, and tail that were pink and clean.
"And now he's completely changed his looks," said Rye, whose fur was dark orange.
"Looks!" barked Ereth. "How can a mouse change his looks?"
"You see," said Rye, with a shake of his head and a whisk of his tail, "Junior's best friend is a skunk."
The salt fell from Ereth's paws. "A skunk?"
"His name is Mephitis," Poppy explained. "We don't know much about him. Or his family. I'm afraid the problem is that he's not a very good influence. Ereth, you need to see Junior for yourself."
"Oh, toe jam on a toothpick," said Ereth. "He can't be that bad."
"The point is," said Poppy, "Junior has become a teenager."
"A teenager!" cried the porcupine. "Why the weasel wonk did you let that happen?"
"He did it on his own," said Rye, his small ears cocked forward.
"Then I'd better go unbuckle his buttons," said Ereth. With a rattle of his quills, he heaved himself up. "Where is he?"
"Probably down among the snag roots," said Rye. "He's taken to liking darkness, too."
"Just watch me, putt pockets," said Ereth. "I'll straighten him out flatter than a six-lane highway rolling through Death Valley. Be back soon. But don't touch that salt, or you'll get a quill up your snoot." Quills rattling, the porcupine clumped out of the old log and headed for the gray lifeless and topless tree in which Poppy and her family made their home.
"Good luck," Rye called after him.
"I do hope it was all right to tell Ereth about Junior," said Poppy.
"Nothing else has worked," said Rye.
"But . . . what do you think he'll do?""I'm not sure, but I guess we'll find out pretty soon."
Excerpted from Poppy's Return by Michael Avi Copyright © 2006 by Michael Avi. Excerpted by permission.
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