The Squirrel Story
It started with the squirrels. They had dropped from the trees, as though the elms were giving birth to those hairy little things. My son, Tanner, watched them all die inexplicably. And he was happy. I thought he thought the squirrels were candy. Or something more satisfying.
I was grading some high school papers at the kitchen table when he pulled at my shirt sleeve, annoying as ever, and asked, "Daddy, why did the squirrels die?"
I set down my red pen and answered, "It must've been something in the air."
"Who knows?" I still had several more papers to grade and I was tired. "Don't worry about it. We'll talk about the stupid squirrels tomorrow."
But he asked, "Do you think it had to do with the starving kids in Africa or the homeless here in North America or the genital mutilation practices in Europe or—?"
"Maybe," I retorted. He was always precocious like his mother, who was dead. "Run along. Daddy needs to work."
I stood up to pour myself a glass of wine, but he didn't move, overzealous. "What are you going to do with the squirrels outside?"
"Nothing. I have work to do."
"Please don't ignore them, Daddy!" He ran out of the house and came back with a squirrel with a red tail. "Don't ignore them, Daddy. Eat one. Eat one for me."
"I already ate."
"Please!" he whined. "The starving kids in Africa would eat them."
"Will you leave me alone if I eat it?"
He nodded jubilantly. I needed some damn quiet.
"Give it," I said.
I ate it. Raw and rubbery, bloody sinew and squishy organs. It tasted okay, tasty as the squirrels I ate on camping trips when I was younger. My son cheered and ran off to play with the dead squirrels in the backyard. Finally. Peace and quiet.
Sometimes I wished my son's mother was around to keep him occupied while I graded papers. His mother, an alcoholic, blamed me for her depression. She found solace on the back patio: she loved watching the squirrels in the back garden. She thought more highly of the squirrels than me. The day before she died, she found me in bed with my school's guidance counselor, Ms. Regina Divino. It wasn't the first time she found me in bed with Regina, but it was the last.
I wondered what my wife would've thought about seeing the dead squirrels. She would've wept and kept on drinking. I found her lying in her own bile, in bed, cradled with an empty bottle. Seeing her lifeless body made me stop drinking. I owe her that. And the kid, of course.
While I was driving my son to school the day after I ate the squirrel, he leaned over to me from the passenger seat. He said, "Was he tasty, Daddy?"
I didn't want to talk to him, my mind swimming with lesson plans, my stomach twisting. I wasn't feel all right. I clenched my teeth, my fingers shaking in agony. And I farted. My son laughed. Resisting the urge to discipline him, I rolled down the window. Must've been something I ate.
Minutes later, I dropped him off at the entrance to his school. He ran up to a boy and girl with dead squirrels on their shoulders, fringed epaulettes from a distance. Carrying dead squirrels too, the other kids snickered at me. My stomach groaned. My son pulled out a dead squirrel from his backpack. I didn't scold him. The pain in my gut kept me from caring.
At the high school, as my students came into the room, I doubled over and flailed on the floor. Three of my students came up to me, heads cocked in wonder and delight.
Bobby said, "Mr. Reeder, are you having a bad day?"
Emma said, "Maybe he ate something awful."
Nick said, "We need to ease his discomfort."
Nick ripped out the first several pages of his library book and threw them at my face. Delirious with pain, I nibbled on the pages, but the paper exacerbated the pain, my bowels burning. I got to my feet and wobbled down the hallway to the restroom. My cold ass kissed a porcelain seat. I pushed and felt the crap crawl out of me. While I zipped up my pants, I looked into the bowl.
Its red tail bushy, a red squirrel was splashing playfully in the toilet. My stomach tightened, eyes transfixed on the creature. I bent down and it turned to me, its black eyes growing blood red.
It lunged, I gasped, I fell back. The squirrel dashed out of the restroom. I scampered after it, bustling past students and teachers. It was a brief chase; the squirrel was too swift.
I returned to my classroom. My students stared at me.
Carrie asked with a grin, "Feeling better?"
I grumbled, "I'm feeling so much better, Carrie. Thank you."
The students chuckled. I ordered them to shut up and turned to my lesson plans, relieved that my bowels no longer felt like a forest fire.
I had first met Ms. Regina Divino, the guidance counselor, in the teachers' lounge a year ago. She was maddeningly running her fingers through her long red hair. Her teeth chattered, eyes unblinking. Like an eager, kenneled dog in a blue pencil skirt, she invited me to her office for cucumber sandwiches. She said, "I'm a woman with needs. I'd appreciate your discretion." We closed the door and turned off the lights. Naked, we started to fuck.
Ignoring the knocks from outside, we fondled each other and changed positions a couple times—standard stuff between consenting adults. My wife had never made me feel so good.
Suddenly, the door opened.
She crawled behind the coatrack, and I dove behind the desk. The janitor shuffled across the room. Frantically, Regina and I looked at the janitor as he emptied the trashcan. After offering us a smile and a nod, he left.
I picked up my kid from school later that day.
He said, "How was your first day teaching, Daddy?"
"Fine. The kids are fine."
"That's great, Daddy," he said. "But you smell like a woman, Daddy."
His mother had a great sense of smell too. I turned the motor over, ignoring the question. But he didn't give up, looking at me intently. He said, "You don't smell like Mommy. Did you make love to a different lady?"
I wanted to lie, but at that moment I had nothing to lose. Not really.
I said, "I fucked a woman, not a lady."
He asked, "What's the difference, Daddy?"
"You'll find out when you're older," I said. "And don't tell Mom about the other woman. You wouldn't want her to get mad, right?"
He nodded slowly.
"Good," I said. "Want some ice cream, kiddo?"
He nodded again and turned toward the passenger side window. I thought I heard him sniffle as I pulled into Dairy Queen.
Hours after I chased the squirrel down the hallway, I walked into Regina's office. She was eating a cucumber sandwich alone. I took a seat. Spreading her legs, she said, "Why are you so pale?"
"It's nothing, babe. Something weird happened in the bathroom this morning."
She tore off my dress shirt. "Tell me." She undid my pants. I undid her skirt. And we started fucking. Hungry for the taste of her body, I kissed her throat.
She said, "What happened? Catch a kid with a squirrel?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "I went to go number two, but ended up shitting out a live squirrel."
"That is weird," she said. "I bet there's medication for that."
I mumbled, "I'll keep that in mind, babe."
Panting, she said, "Frank, tell me I'll be a good mom to Tanner. Tell me I'll be a good mother. Say it: Who's your mommy?"
I didn't reply. Too strange even for me. I thought of my kid. The clock on the wall read half-past two. His school got out ten minutes ago. I turned to Regina. For the next few minutes, she mattered, this penetrating bond mattered.
She said, "Isn't Tanner expecting you?"
I said, "Hush now. Don't ruin the moment."
"Don't call me honey. Just be quiet. I—"
The door opened and we stopped. The janitor walked in.
He crossed the room and sat several feet away from us. He nodded for us to continue. I looked at Regina for her opinion. She begged me to resume. A gentleman, I obliged. But I tried my best to climax as fast as I could. Not for my son's sake; it was just the janitor was bizarre. It wasn't his smile or his chuckles, but more so his eyes. Large, beady, ebony. His nose twitched. He smelled of salted nuts. I moved faster, then faster, then I climaxed. Sans satisfaction. The janitor hurried away without saying a word.
While I was putting on my clothes, Regina said, "What's up with the janitor?"
I said, "Who cares? As long as he doesn't say anything, we're good."
"What about him?"
"His school got out—"
"Oh, shit. Thanks for reminding me."
"Call me tonight?"
"I'll try. No promises."
I gave her a quick kiss on the neck and left, and as I crossed paths with several of the other English teachers in the hallway, we exchanged smiles. They'd never expected a thing between us, Regina and me. That was good. I didn't want people to assume we were in love.
I pulled up in front of my son's school. He jumped into the car, hugging a squirrel and breathing in its soft head. He said, "Did you lose track of time?"
"Yes, kiddo. I was grading papers."
He lifted his face from his pet. "You smell like her, Daddy."
"The counselor. You smell like the counselor."
"Yes. Why?" He sounded sad and disappointed.
I didn't know what else to say. He was just a kid. So I ended up saying, "I have needs," and pulled away from the curb.
He said, "You smelled like her when Mommy was alive."
"I know," I said.
"But why, Daddy?"
He was starting to annoy me. I asked, "Why what?"
"Why must you smell like the counselor?"
"You don't understand. You won't understand until you're older."
"I can understand a lot now."
"I know, but not now. I've had a long day."
"Are you sure?"
I didn't respond.
He said, "Okay, Daddy." His teary eyes glistened. "Whatever you say."
As I said in the beginning, it started with the squirrels. Life got even more annoyingly strange after the squirrels dropped dead. More and more kids started to wear them and confide in them. I thought it was a fad or something equally dumb. A few days after I ate my squirrel, Miranda from Honors English pulled out her limp squirrel and placed her lips against its ears. During silent reading time she whispered to her pet, "I'm not a child. Mommy doesn't understand. She doesn't love me. Not like you." She looked up. "Doesn't Frank seem off today?"
She locked eyes onto mine and licked her lips, her tongue grazing the squirrel's head. I didn't say anything. She was the weird kid. Every class has one.
Madam Mayor ordered a vigil for the dead squirrels. Held outside City Hall, the vigil was massive, scores and scores of crying adults with roman candles and wreaths of tiger lilies. How pathetic, mourning for dead squirrels. The kids were happy, dead squirrels in their hands. One of the squirrels blinked. I shuddered, remembering the squirrel from class. As my kid and I started to move closer to the mayor's lectern up front, we passed the janitor from my school.
He smirked at me, ears somehow bigger, nose smaller and pinker, eyes larger and blacker, hands fumbling with a walnut. He giggled and turned to the other adults. Many had large black eyes and hairy necks, ears perked, eyes beady and steady. Too confused to make sense of it all, I said to my son, "Don't be a freak when you grow up."
He replied, "I'll be a great man, Daddy. Don't worry. The squirrels will come back. The mayor will give them the right to marry. They'll be so happy that they won't cheat on their spouses. Unlike some."
I yanked him back. "Don't talk to me like that. I'm still your father." Looking at me from behind their parents, a few kids from first period chuckled with indignation. If I weren't in an open crowd, I'd yell at them to mind their own business. I moved closer to my son.
He said, "I love you, Daddy. Don't hurt me—please."
Somedays I wished I wasn't a parent. I withdrew. Regina stood several feet in front of the mayor's lectern. She walked over to us and kissed my kid on the cheek. He giggled and showed her his latest pet, a bedraggled squirrel he found earlier this afternoon. She said, "What a gorgeous selection. I could just eat it." She lifted my son in her arms, and he began to doze, as if she had just crooned a lullaby. I should've introduced him to her months ago.
Madam Mayor took her place behind the lectern, a squirrel with a bushy red tail sitting on her shoulders. I narrowed my eyes on the animal, the squirrel from my bowels. It squealed at me from the mayor's shoulders. A part of me trembled.
Madam Mayor said, "The squirrels have died, but I believe in the cometh. And it has a plan for us." Now on the lectern, the squirrel squealed to the crowd. Regina handed me my son. Everyone but my kid and I formed large circles in the street and started to howl at the moon.
My veins froze and palms perspired. I wanted to go home. I thought I'd only have to light a candle or sing along to a church hymn or something else sentimental. I started across the street with my kid in my arms. But the janitor stepped in front of me, his whole body hairy. In the dark, something swayed behind his back like a large duster.
He said, "You don't deserve your boy."
I demanded, "What the hell did you say?"
He caressed my kid's chin, so I kicked him back. "Touch him again and I'll break your wrist."
He snickered and ran off. At the lectern, the squirrel with the red tail squealed at the crowd again. They fell silent and turned toward the hairy shit. Panicked and enraged, I shivered and approached the squirrel, wanting nothing more than to choke it until its head erupted into a pile of blood and brain. But it flung itself into the crowd. The people began to coo at the moon. They swung dead squirrels above their heads like wet T-shirts. It was as if the crowd came to worship the squirrel.
I left, my son like a heavy sack of dead squirrels in my arms. He woke up and said, "They're all turning into squirrels. I want to be a squirrel too."
"Don't be dumb."
"I thought it was obvious, Daddy."
At home I tucked my son into bed and returned to grading my students' work. But before long, I thought I saw a seven-foot-tall squirrel outside the kitchen window.
The town deemed the dead squirrels sacrosanct. At the time I didn't stood why. Within a couple weeks after their surprise deaths, burning them became illegal. All the children now owned them as pets, men wore them as dress scarves, and women wore them as hats—squirrel fedoras, a woman told me. Wearing a bedazzled squirrel hat, the woman said to me, "Frank, they're called squirrel fedoras. If you were a lady, wouldn't you want one?"
I was standing in line at the supermarket when the woman in the bedazzled squirrel hat turned to me. I asked, "Do I know you?"
She said, "Everyone knows you. How you cheated on your wife. How you treat Tanner."
My heart skipped several beats. How does she know me? I wondered. The other shoppers looked at me and scowled. Some tittered. I demanded to the woman, "What are you talking about?"
Several shoppers guffawed. Actually guffawed.
"Don't play dumb, Frank," the woman said. "Are the rumors true?"
"That you're a bad daddy," she said. "Do you love your boy?"
"I don't have to answer to you."
"True, true, but very soon you'll have a lot of explaining to do."
She giggled, the others giggled, they all giggled. I felt trapped in a dream in which everyone was either dumb or psychotic. I said, "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Then I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was the manager. He said, "You're a bad daddy, Frank."
I demanded, "Excuse me?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave." He squeezed my shoulder. I felt like he was going to rip me in half. I winced in pain as he shoved me to the exit. On the sidewalk I spat on the front door and ran away before the manager noticed the spit sliding down the automatic doors. Soon I turned into a nearby alleyway, my typical path home from the supermarket.
A woman was sprawled on the ground. So sensual. Whorish, really. Then I noticed it, her slit throat.
I fumbled back. I tried to tell myself it wasn't Regina. Yet it was. Her attackers, all three of them, glared at me and started to rise. Noses twitching, fangs protruding, tails jerking. They were hairy. Seven feet tall. They stepped forward, claws bloody. I backed off, but they took one step forward.
I begged, "Just leave me alone. Devour her. I have a son."
They laughed, sharing high-pitched squeals. I pissed a little in my trousers.
One of them said in a deep voice, "Bad daddies don't deserve to breathe."
Another squirrel said, "You're a bad daddy. We can hear you breathing."
The third squirrel nodded. "The world doesn't need bad daddies who breathe."
From the opposite end of the alleyway, the squirrel with the red tail scurried to the top of Regina's head, its tail slapping her hair. It squealed at the others. They squealed in return. A shiver clawed down my back. The tall squirrel creatures turned to me. I thought of my son; he was still at home.
The squirrel with the red tail squealed with rancor. The armed monsters dashed forward. With a yelp I ran back the way I came. They swiped their claws in my direction, running on their hind legs. I sprinted as fast as they could. I passed several people on the sidewalk. Most looked like squirrels—tails swaying, dark eyes glinting. Finally, I eluded them, shuffling down a backroad. I passed a girl with hairy ears. I stopped and stared at her: she muttered something to a tiny squirrel, a rotten pet with a mangled tail, mangled feet. When the squirrel peered up at me and winked, I ran away. Sprinting, then scampering.
I thought about home, trying hard not to look at the rows of dead adult bodies on the sidewalk. The dead adult bodies: the undesirables—the word came to mind suddenly. They didn't look like squirrels. Neither did me.
I ran into the house. My kid was stroking his tail at the kitchen table. It had begun.
He said, "You're having a bad day, Daddy. You must be hungry. Don't you ever think about the starving kids in Africa? Mommy used to."
I said, "Shut up. We're leaving. The squirrels are after me."
"They hate you."
"The world, Daddy. Everybody hates you. The janitor told the squirrel with the red tail everything about you and Ms. Divino."
I pulled him out of his seat. He winced, face turning red. I said, "You don't have the right to speak to me in that tone. I'm still your father."
"It doesn't matter, Daddy. Everyone knows the truth. I still have the squirrels. At least they love me."
I felt my stomach tighten. He had no right to disrespect me.
I shoved him.
The back of his head struck the edge of the table. The glass patio door shattered, and in stormed the squirrel creatures. Before I could run, one of them knocked me out. Images of my dead wife resurfaced in the blackness of my mind— the smell of booze, the tender touch of Regina, the sound of my son's voice, each statement or question from his mouth like a wrong note made during a piano recital. Maybe I am insane, I thought. That would explain a lot. Hell, maybe we're all insane. Maybe just a little bit.
I came to.
Outside Town Hall.
A crowd of men, women, and children.
My hands bound with rope.
My son weeping several feet away. A squirrel woman cradled him and brushed his tears with her tail. The crowd, including Madam Mayor, grimaced at me, claws extended like butcher knives. The squirrel with the red tail stood on the lectern, beating its tail down like a judge with a gavel. The crowd was hushed. I tried my hardest not to shit myself.
The squirrel said in a deep voice, "Frank, do you deserve to die?"
I stammered, "I'll be good to Tanner."
"Do you deserve to die?"
I exclaimed, "I'll be a good daddy. Please! I don't want to die."
"You mistreated your wife and child, so we took Tanner." The squirrel nodded to the mayor. She cut me loose.
I stuttered, "What's going to happen to my boy?"
"He's not yours anymore!" a squirrel in the crowd shouted.
Another squirrel yelled, "Bad daddies don't deserve to breathe! Bad daddies don't deserve to breathe!"
All the squirrels started to chant. I felt nauseated and faintish. I looked at Tanner for help, but he turned away. I couldn't blame him; a part of me finally realized I didn't deserve him.
The crowd, still chanting, started toward me. I backed off. Leaning forward on the lectern, the squirrel shouted over the mob, "Run, Frank. They're hungry."
The squirrels stepped forward. I backed father back. The squirrel-woman continued to cradle my boy. Then they dashed forward, enable to catch me as I hurried down the block and through a narrow alleyway. I crumpled against a wall and bawled into my hands. Minutes later, my stomach churned with hunger. I tottered down the alleyway and several more blocks, avoiding the townspeople. They all looked like squirrels.
It started with the squirrels. It ends with me. That's how these stories work, right? I come across Regina's body in the same alleyway as before. I drag her to the other side of a dumpster and hug her limp body. Her eyes are devoid of life, like empty pockets profuse with lost opportunities. I begin to cry and piss myself, my skin cold and covered in goosebumps. I don't know where to go from here. My stomach groans with a hunger I fear nothing can satiate.
Former poetry editor of Catfish Creek
, Jacob Butlett
(he/him) holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Loras College. His current work has been published or is forthcoming in Outrageous Fortune, Wilderness House Literary Review, Picaroon Poetry, Free Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Clarion, Cold Creek Review, The Shallows, Twelve Point Collective
and plain china
. In 2012 Jacob received a Scholastic's Art and Writing Awards Gold Key for literary excellence.