Everything was alright before the squirrel.
Things weren't perfect, of course, but what is? Sure, Grace and I didn't love each other like when we first met years ago, but who does? No feelings ever truly stay the same. You either stay on an even keel or those feelings slowly drift away, like cutting a fart into a box fan.
The morning my life went to shit, I got up, went to work and wished I was anywhere else in the world. When I got home our golden retriever, Brutus, was going apeshit. I opened the door and there he was waiting for me, tail wagging. He barked immediately, ran to the far wall sniffing under the computer desk and then turned to stare at me, his body becoming completely still.
"What is it?"
He barked again, louder this time, diving back under the desk, hunting something only he could sense. I left him to it. All I wanted was to sit my ass on the couch and drink a beer.
Grace wasn't home so I knew it would be safe to crack one without hearing a bunch of shit about it. Isn't that pathetic? Almost thirty years old and I'm hiding a can of beer from my girlfriend like a teenager hiding pot from his mother.
"The hell with her." I took a long, defiant slug of my beer and I sat down to enjoy my shows. I didn't plan on getting up for the rest of the night. About an hour later I woke up on the couch, beer spilled all over it. It was bad. She loved that couch more than me and the dog combined. I got up to get some paper towels and clean the mess when I noticed Brutus staring at me, still as a gravestone. He whined and barked. Over and over and over again.
Probably has to shit, I thought.
I opened the back door for him, the human to dog signal to ruin the lawn. Only this time he didn't move. He just continued to stare. He dove back under the computer desk and went sniffing around. I think the Amish people that sold him to me lied. His parents weren't show dogs. They were probably siblings.
The beer I spilled had soaked my pants, giving me the look of a man who had just pissed himself. I took my beer-soaked ass down the basement to do a load of laundry.
I hated that basement since the day I moved into the house. The stairs were painted vomit green and they were rickety as hell. They swayed and groaned under your weight as you walked on them. It was like a man without thumbs or a clue had done the carpentry. The walls were concrete, but the years had taken a toll on them. Big chunks of the wall had fallen away and concrete dust piled up underneath. The pipes were exposed overhead and the whole place smelled wet and moldy. It looks like the kind of place a sex crime might take place in.
When I reached the bottom step, I noticed the hatch to the chimney was wide open. It was never open. I swung the hatch closed and threw the latch, locking it back in place. I tossed a load of laundry in the washer, throwing the wet pants and underwear I had on in there, too. That's when I heard a strange noise. It sounded like a bird tapping its talons against a tile floor. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement up on the pipes. My mouth hung open. It was a squirrel.
I was in shock. I was used to seeing them in a tree or on a telephone wire, not in a house. It was like walking into a bathroom and finding a turd in the sink instead of the toilet bowl. We stared each other down like two gunfighters before their duel.
He was ugly. He had a giant tail, longer than any I'd ever seen on a squirrel before. His filthy little chest heaved in and out and his mouth was wide open. The strangest thing was his head. Since the latch was open I assumed he tumbled down the chimney, scraping his head as he fell. The hair on top of his head was missing and the skin was blotchy and red. He looked like Peter Boyle if he had been covered in fur.
Then, to my surprise, he shit.
All I could think was, My God, I've never seen a squirrel shit before.
Something finally snapped me out of my trance and I ran upstairs, sans pants and underwear, and slammed the door behind me. Grace stood in the kitchen, staring as my naked ass pressed against the basement door. I hadn't heard her come in.
"Squirrel," was all I could get out.
* * *
I needed to regroup. I also needed some underwear and dry pants. I wasn't sure what to do, but I had to come up with a solution quick. Right away Grace was all over me about it.
"How the hell did a squirrel end up in the basement? How are we going to get it out of there? You need to call a professional."
"No," I said. "No one's coming in here and charging me an arm and a leg to get a rodent out of my house."
"OUR house, Chuck," she shot back. Always an argument. I avoided the impending fight like I usually did.
"I'll get it out. Don't you worry about it."
I thought about what I had in the house that I could use to fight off this little asshole. I used to do house clean outs where I collected a whole assortment of strange things. A few years ago I helped an old lady clean out her garage. Her husband died, but he had been a pack rat while he was alive. The garage looked like something out of an episode of Hoarders. In the middle of the floor was a pile of bike parts. Tires, frames and handle bars all twisted up together and reached the ceiling like a gnarled metal tree reaching up to the sky. On the far wall by the steps was shelving that covered the wall with every kind of hand tool you could imagine. There were hammers, wrenches, saws and wood planes of every size. There were piles of shoes and stacks of newspapers dating back to the 60's. There were two things in this smorgasbord of junk I brought home with me; a double barreled shotgun and a blow dart gun. The shotgun was overkill. The dart gun would do.
The dart gun was six feet long, thin and made of stainless steel. It came with a leather pouch filled with darts. They were as thin as sewing needles with small nubs on the end. It was the most awkward thing to try and shoot, but it was all I had. It would work. It had to work.
I threw on a pair of jeans and my work boots, tucking the pant legs into the boots. I put on a heavy jacket and an old football helmet to complete my squirrel-defense outfit. Grace stared at me with a mixture of embarrassment and disgust.
"I'm taking the dog for a walk." Before leaving she turned and said,"You look ridiculous, by the way."
With my blowdart gun in hand I opened the basement door and took a deep breath. I stood at the top step and listened for any sign of the little bastard. Nothing.
When I reached the bottom, I noticed the shit was right where Baldy had dropped it from the pipe. There were two more little loads to the right of it. The prick had intruded into my home and now he was using my basement as his own personal bathroom.
"You're dead squirrel. Stick that bald head of yours out and I'm gonna put one of these darts right through it!" I waited. No response.
I checked behind the washer and under the steps. I looked behind the weight bench and all around the shelves of decorations. No sign of him. I looked up to the pipes where I stashed the shotgun and there sat the squirrel, as if he was trying to figure out how to shoot the damn thing.
His beady eyes stared right at me, never blinking.
I put one of the darts in my mouth and, crouching down slowly, slid the mouthpiece of the dart gun between the slats in the football helmet and against my lips. I looked like an aborigine outfitted in a mishmash of Salvation Army clothes. The dart gun was so long it damn near touched old Baldy's face. I blew with all my might.
And I completely fucking missed.
The dart hit the joist right next to him so I went to plan B. I swung the dart gun as hard as I could. It made a noise similar to a wiffle ball bat with a hole in it. This time I missed because the squirrel was on the move. He evaded my swing and jumped down to the floor, the dart gun hitting the pipes above with a loud clang that echoed over my head. My helmet turned slightly so that I couldn't see what Baldy was doing. I reached up and threw it off my head. Now I could see him and he was charging straight for me.
With a warrior's scream I brought the dart gun down, missing him by inches and bending it into a U-shape. All in one motion he stopped coming forward and then jumped backwards, straight in the air with his arms and legs outstretched, resembling one of his flying cousins. I continued screaming, tossed the broken dart gun and ran back up the steps and into the kitchen. Attempt number one to rid my house of the vermin had not gone well at all.
That night I couldn't sleep. I laid in bed staring at the blades of the ceiling fan whirling around and around throwing dust mites the size of lint balls. They were the color of his fur.
I called my boss in the morning and told him I was sick. I sounded like shit anyway from the lack of sleep and all the screaming the day before. I even threw in the obligatory fake cough to complete the ruse. I drove to the hardware store and bought some work gloves and a humane trap big enough to hold a large cat. It was made of wire mesh and had one door, spring loaded from a trigger plate on the other end of the cage. You put the bait on the trigger plate and then, hopefully, the door slams shut with the animal trapped inside. This plan seemed a lot better than the last one.
When I got home Grace was up making coffee. She looked at the clock and then at me as I put down my bags.
"Not going to work today?"
"Look Grace, I don't want to fight, alright?"
"You're missing work, going out and buying a bunch of garbage, wasting money when you could just call a professional and get this taken care of. Whats wrong with you? We don't have the money for this."
"But we have the money for an exterminator? You always complain about money, but what do you bring to the table? You don’t even have a job.”
I hit a nerve. I knew it was a soft spot, but I hit it anyway. Her eyes were starting to fill with tears. This fight was a long time coming. I should've stopped there, but I couldn’t.
"Who pays the mortgage? Who pays for the groceries and the other bills? Who fills the cars with gas? Who pays for the dog's vet bills and his food? ME. Thats who. You can leave anytime you want. I'm not going to stop you. If it's so bad here then get the fuck out."
I wanted to hurt her. Looking at her face I realized I had. I immediately regretted it.
"You're right, Chuck. I'll get some clothes and I'll go to my dad's. I'll take Brutus with me. I didn't realize you were so unhappy."
The tears were really flowing now. I felt horrible. She started up the stairs then turned towards me with a pleading look.
"You really want me to go?"
I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. Tell her how much I loved her. Tell her what an idiot I had been to say those things to her and to just hug her close and smell her hair against my face. Instead I said nothing. Then she left.
* * *
Now it was just me and the squirrel. It had become an obsession. The only thing that mattered was capturing him. I don't know why. Maybe it was because of all the disappointments I'd had in life. Always getting the shitty end of the stick. Never going through with anything. I couldn’t fix what was happening with Grace and I, but I could fix this. I would trap him. For once in my life I would win.
I went down the basement, but there was no sign of him. I put the trap down next to the stairs so I could crack the door and look down from time to time and see if he was in there. I put a glob of peanut butter on the trigger plate. Then I waited.
The house was so quiet without Grace and the dog. I thought about picking up the phone and apologizing and telling her to come home and move on from there. Try and make things right for once in our relationship. But I knew if there was any way of salvaging our life together I had to get that squirrel first. I poured myself a shot of whiskey and threw it back. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat cross legged on the hardwood floor, staring at a clump of Brutus' fur tangled up in the television wires. Hot tears hit my cheek. Wiping them, I tossed my beer back in one large swallow and grabbed another one. And another one. And another one until there was a sea of bottles around me. I laid back and started to drift off. A loud SNAP shook me awake. It was the trap.
I jumped to my feet and almost fell back down. I was hammered. I put a hand against the wall next to the basement door and steadied myself. My head was spinning and I didn't wantto fall down the steps and crack my neck. I took a deep breath and swung the door wide open. I took the steps slow and steady and found it hard to stay balanced. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my eardrums. I got to the bottom of the steps and stared, slack jawed, at the trap. There was no peanut butter and there was no squirrel.
The door was snapped shut with nothing inside. I couldn't even process what I was looking at. I picked up the trap and heaved it into the wall. The anger was seeping out of every pore in my body. I knocked over the box of Christmas decorations and stomped every ornament that rolled out. I looked up and saw the shotgun sitting on the pipes and pulled it out, careful not to bang it. The gun was old. There was no safety on it. I kept it loaded and the slightest tap had the potential to fire it.
Maybe my drunken mind was playing tricks on me, but I heard a noise that sounded like a giggle. I spun toward the noise and there, perched atop the heater, was the squirrel and I swear it looked like he was smiling. There was peanut butter all around his mouth. He was so still you could almost mistake him for a taxidermist's latest creation, except that giggle was emanating from his throat and his neck pulsated as he made the noise. I leveled both barrels right at him. Even though I was drunk and my aim could've been off a touch, there was enough spread on the gun to turn his body into tiny pieces.
I lowered the gun after what felt like hours. "What am I doing?" I asked out loud to no one in particular.
I thought about what a fool I was. I was drunk and alone, pointing a shotgun at a squirrel. I decided right then and there that Grace was right. I was going to call an exterminator and then I was going to call her and tell her all the things I should've told her before. I was going to make things right instead of making them worse like I usually did.
"You win Baldy," I said. I stumbled back, keeping my eyes on him at all times in case he decided to strike. I placed the shotgun stock side down and let it go to rest against the steps. In my drunken state I misjudged how far the steps were from where I stood. I whirled around and reached out to try and stop it and, there on the steps, was Grace. There was confusion on her face. Then there was no face at all.
The gun hit the steps and fired both barrels, shooting up through the bannister and taking off Grace's face and the front of her head. Her body slumped forward; what was left of her mangled head hit the concrete with a loud, wet smack. Her legs were tangled up on the bottom step giving her the look of a person who had died a violent death while playing Twister.
I couldn't speak or hear and I found it hard to breathe. I felt the bile rise in my throat and I fell to my knees, immediately throwing up the contents of my belly. The squirrel jumped off the heater and ran across the room to Grace's body. He leapt up onto her back and ran up the steps through the door into the kitchen. I stood and started for the steps. I closed my eyes and shuffled past her corpse, climbing the steps as fast as I could. There was hair and viscera clinging to the ceiling, the coppery smell of her blood in my nose. I shut off the light and closed the door.
The sliding door to the back was open. That's why I didn't hear her come in. I picked up the phone from the receiver and pressed the numbers 9-1-1, hesitating to touch the call button. Walking to the back porch, I sat on one of the plastic chairs we had set up out there. Grace picked them out.
Grace. I tried to think of her beautiful smile or her shining blue eyes, but all I could see was the bloody wound where her face used to be. I tried to clear my mind.
The breeze felt nice. I didn't know if I'd ever feel a breeze again. Would anyone believe what really happened? Would I be charged with murder and thrown into a cell for the rest of my life? Would I be raped in prison? These were questions for which I didn't have any answers and at that particular moment I just liked the way the air felt against my face.
The neighbor's trees swayed in the wind, my eyes following a runaway leaf to the fence separating our yards, and there on that fence sat the squirrel. He was looking at me in a way I can't really describe. It was almost like he knew what I was thinking. I could still hear him giggling. He flicked that long tail once, twice and then he jumped to a branch, scurrying up the trunk with ease.
There were sirens in the distance, getting closer and louder by the second. I dropped the phone to the ground. Someone beat me to it. I kept watching as the squirrel climbed higher and higher, leaping off into the next tree. My last glimpse of him was the top of that shiny bald head soaring through the air and out of sight.
John Teel is a union ironworker from Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Pulp Modern, The Literary Hatchet, Dark Moon Digest and Creepy Campfire Quarterly. When he's not working, he spends his time with his wife Rae, their son Charlie and their insane dog Gizmo, who they never feed after midnight.
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