by William Thompson
He got into the house on a Tuesday. Tuesday was trash day. I was coming back through the gate after dumping the garbage in a barrel when I saw him. Stupid to leave the door open. And no way to stop him. There he was—on the top step—looking back at me—the cheeky little bastard. Then, with a swish of his tail, he disappeared inside.
I ran—I pounded up the stairs and inside, pausing on the landing to look around. Downstairs—most likely. Down I went—not bothering to take off my outside shoes.
The basement was dark, but I didn’t turn on a light. I stalked through the laundry room, peering side to side, under racks of old books and the dusty weight-bench, kicking up piles of clothes and towels—just in case. I came to the furnace where the door led into the rest of the basement. Closed—thank God. I snatched up towels and stuffed them under the gap. Then I tracked back through the laundry-room, this time looking more carefully, pausing to shift boxes, most overflowing with junk I hadn’t looked at in years—nothing. I stopped to listen—nothing. Reluctantly, I walked upstairs, pausing on the landing to shut and lock the back door.
I couldn’t find him that day. I looked; I listened. I combed through the rest of the basement three times, carefully leaving the laundry-room door closed.
Lying in bed that night, I thought I heard him—a movement, stealthy and furtive. I shot out of bed to go through the house again—pacing up-and-down the stairs, front and back, checking corners and under furniture. Nothing.
The next morning I woke to a listening silence. This was making me crazy. My teaching term was over, but I had other deadlines. I set them aside to find my intruder.
I thought about setting traps. But you can’t catch a squirrel the way you can mice. Mice are easy. Bait traps with peanut butter and set. It’s like a little trap line in your basement. You listen for the snap of the trap, then find the little beggars and dispose of them. Squirrels were smarter than mice. But I wasn’t about to be outdone by a goddamn squirrel. By day three, I had a plan.
My basement was filled with the broken bits of my life—stuff my wife didn’t take when she left, stuff my kids didn’t take when they moved out, stuff I had packed or put away and forgotten. I was going to clean—clean every goddamn last bit of it until I found that squirrel.
I started in the TV room. I had a pile of boxes I had picked up from the liquor store. I started filling them—old movies, broken toys, memorabilia from God knows where, and sundry other shit that no longer had use or value. I went through shelves; I went through drawers. I tore into that stuff. I was a demon cleaner, tossing junk into those boxes, filling one after another. It was invigorating—freeing in a heady sort of way. I picked stuff up, barely looked at it, then chucked it into one of the boxes. I carried them out to the trash one at a time. I only slowed down to close the door each time I carried something to the garbage.
Middle daughter’s room was still intact, so I left it alone. Daughters one and three were not coming back—daughter number three lived with her mother. One and three had stored stuff in the second basement bedroom. I left that room alone, too.
Five hours into my purge I was staring at the laundry room door—a bit of green towel flicking out from under the gap.
I yanked open the door. Maybe I thought I would surprise the squirrel in the midst of doing something nasty or maybe even obscene—or whatever the Christ squirrels did when invading the houses of unsuspecting divorcées, who drank too much and missed their children.
I went in there like the wrath of God: I pulled stuff off the floor and moved loose junk into the hall. I gathered up the laundry—some of it months old—and I filled two hampers. Then I started on the boxes.
I was on a roll; I was in the zone. Sometimes I didn’t even get an empty box. I grabbed a box of junk, dumped it on the floor, gave it a cursory sort, piled it back into the box, then carried it outside to slam it on the deck for removal. Soon, I had a line of such boxes ready to be hauled out to the trash.
On the shelves below the stairs were several Rubbermaid containers, which I yanked onto the floor. Before my life became what it is now, I had carefully filled those containers with stuff I thought my kids would want to keep. I peeled off a lid and dumped the stuff on the floor.
The sight of a cloth doll brought me up short. It was Elinor’s—my youngest daughter’s, who had carried that doll everywhere she went. And there was other stuff—doll clothes, quilts for doll-sized beds, and assorted stuffies—all things from the days when my girls played together all over the house, when I would read to them or tell them stories, when I was much more of a father than I am now.
As I sorted, I could feel a bubble of something inflating inside. And in not very long, whatever it was came bursting out in a stream of tears and snot. All the grief, all the bad feelings I’d forced down and packed away for months came fire-hosing to the surface. I wept and rocked and moaned, right there on the laundry-room floor.
It could have gone on a long time, but I looked up through streaming eyes to suddenly see the fucking squirrel looking back at me from a shelf by the stairs. I let out a bellow and plowed through the scatter of stuff on the floor to get him.
He was a brown flash as he sped up the stairs—but this time I was on him. I flung open the backdoor as I hit the landing, then leaped up the stairs into the kitchen. That squirrel tore over furniture, up and down drapes, and through almost every room on the main floor. And I was on him the whole time, bellowing myself hoarse as he leaped and squeaked and scrabbled.
After ten minutes, I lost sight of him. I paused in the kitchen, panting and still dripping tears and snot. Then with a skittering slide he tore passed me and back towards the basement stairs.
At the backdoor, I saw him streaking across the yard towards the big pine by the fence. I was after him again, down the stairs and across the rain-soaked grass of early June to the foot of the pine, where I swore up at him as he chattered down at me.
The summer is nearly over now. Teaching starts in a couple of weeks. The house is tidier than it’s been in years. My daughters came home this summer, and we had a good, if careful, visit. I didn’t drink. We watched movies and went out for dinner. And we went for walks through the neighborhood, sometimes the three of them, arm-in-arm, laughing and talking as I trailed behind. And we talked. I talked more than they did, but that’s okay—I had more I wanted to say. I showed them how I’d reorganized the basement and what I’d done with their stuff, which would be there, whenever they wanted it. Sydney talked about moving home while she goes to school. We’ll see how that works out. Madeline, my eldest, was less sullen, and Ellie was just happy we were together.
The squirrel still lives in my backyard—mostly in the big pine. He still chatters at me, but he knows I’m all right because I put out peanuts for him, which the blue jays also like.
And as I spend the last of these summer days reading or writing in the living room, I can sometimes hear him patter across the roof. I think he’s got a place to store food up there, but I don’t mind.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing