A dusting of tiny ice pellets fell, neither snow nor sleet. Denise didn’t care that her head was uncovered and coat open — she was too busy imagining ways to guiltlessly inflict a horrific death on her boss.
Fumbling through her purse for the house key, she heard the rustling above her head. Shells from sunflower seeds sifted down.
Looking up, she caught a glimpse of a fluffy grey blur bounding out of her bird feeder. Denise glared at the creature with a look that would have vaporized steel. The damned squirrels ate as much as the birds.
Inside the kitchen, she anticipated her drug of choice — a cup of foamy, sweet, hot chocolate. Opening the cabinet, a heavy blur dropped past her face, brushing her nose. The object clunked in the sink.
That damned can of cashews. This year’s Christmas bonus. Last year everybody got cash bonuses, but this year they received brightly wrapped cylinders — cans of nuts. She was sure Ken, her boss, got a nice fat check —got it because her professionalism forced her to rescue him from his stupid decisions. Her reward for saving the production was the can of cashews. Opening it meant accepting the injustice, and she wouldn’t.
Denise gripped the hefty cylinder in her hand, and for a moment imagined bashing Ken’s head with it. Ashamed of her violent thoughts, she returned the can to the counter.
Only her loyalty to the production had prevented her from leaving. But, now they were running out of script. Abandoning her boss in the mire of his own incompetence would be the ultimate revenge.
A good night’s rest would clear her mind for job-hunting strategy in the morning. Reading in bed usually helped her drop off quickly — snuggled under the fuzzy covers with the warm light of the reading lamp. The new anthology by Jane Gwaltney was just what she needed.
The staccato patter of little clawed feet wrenched her from sleep filled with nightmares of Ken chasing with a blazing script.
The world was grey, dawn’s pause when early morning darkness refuses to concede. Noise raged above her head in the attic.
Chattering, scratching, romping, thumping. Weren’t squirrels supposed to leave their nests in the morning? They scampered and played, creating a boisterous, rodentine racket.
Picking up a shoe, Denise stood on the bed. It was like standing inside a boat, rocking and swaying, but she found her balance and banged on the ceiling. Silence… She dropped the shoe to the floor, and at that instant the noise resumed – louder, like they were testing her. Growling, she reached up, beating on the ceiling with her fist.
She collapsed on the bed. Think!
She would chase the squirrels out of the attic and block their way in. Then she would go somewhere, and have a good breakfast. Fruit and juice and French toast, something luxurious.
She dressed, and went outside. From the porch Denise spied the loose panel, partially covering the eaves, and a pair of little beady eyes staring down. Problem solved. Scare them out, repair the panel, and return to restful mornings and quiet nights.
Denise brought out a kitchen chair and broom. With the added height, she banged and prodded, slipping the broom handle under the eaves, waving it around. Squirrel-ish blurs exploded from inside. They shot past her, landed on the porch pillar, slid down, and disappeared across the lawn.
She scooted the chair closer, standing on tips toes and peering beneath the panel into the attic. By leaning dangerously from side to side she could see the plumbing and heating vents, gauzy curtains of spider webs...and definitely no squirrels.
She struggled to replace the loose aluminum panel. It resisted, the sharp edges nicking and slicing her fingers. After pushing and bending and twisting, the panel finally dropped precisely in place. She tapped it with her fist, satisfied with the solid fit.
That evening, she interrupted the daily feast at her birdfeeder. The squirrels didn’t flee immediately — they considered her with dark little eyes, ate a few more seeds, then leisurely bounced down and across the lawn.
On tip toes, she peaked into the birdfeeder. There was still enough for the wild birds. Taking her house key from her purse, she glanced up to the eaves panel snugly undisturbed. The sense accomplishment was matched only by her anticipation beginning the job hunt.
Denise launched her effort by relaxing in bed with a notebook and fine point pen, writing down people who knew her reputation for hard work and good results. Finishing an impressive list of contacts, she swallowed a precautionary sleeping pill, and after reading a few pages, fell asleep.
Denise awoke to the alarm’s electronic screech.
Something was missing.
No machine-gun click of little nailed paws.
No scampering and thumping above her head.
It was an eternity since she had slept through the night. She yawned and stretched leisurely, full of confidence, and went into the kitchen to make breakfast.
Large, fat snowflakes drifted down in slow motion.
No outside camera shots possible today.
She cut a breakfast pizza in half, microwaved it, and ate as she dressed. Then she poured some instant coffee into a travel mug, and taking her purse, stepped out to the front porch.
The air was sucked out her lungs. A dead squirrel lay on the porch, its coat with crimson, its open mouth showing chipped teeth smeared red. Denise’s eyes darted to the aluminum panel. A crude hole had been chewed in the center, edges glistening with blood. She spun around, and slammed the door behind her.
She forced herself to breathe.
She had chased them all out – she had risked her neck on the chair to make sure. Now...the thought of throwing the creature into the trash felt cold, unfeeling. She hadn’t realized she had a soft spot for little furry animals, but she did for this one.
In the garden, among her precious irises and gladiolas, she dug an appropriately-sized hole. Then, sliding the shovel under the victim, she returned to the garden. For a moment the little grave stood oddly dark against the blanket of white fluff covering the lawn.
The next morning, half-asleep, she trudged to the kitchen, instinctively glancing out the window.
She spun around, rubbing her eyes.
Squirrels, at least a dozen, clustered around the grave. They sat on their back legs, tails fluffed up behind, front paws held in prayer. Every one turned its gaze on her.
“I’m sorry,” she found herself saying. “I didn’t see him...I didn’t mean to...”
Denise ran from the window. A wave of guilt—just what she DIDN’T need – washed over her. She turned on the TV as a distraction. A newscaster stood on an overpass, talking about freezing rain and ice after noon — a good day to secretly draft her resume on lunch.
As she locked the front door, she felt their eyes.
A wolf-pack of squirrels huddled on the lawn.
She took a small step forward. They scampered up the steps to the edge of the porch, chittering in discussion.
“I didn’t know he was up there.” They didn’t move.
Denise retreated inside. Gathering her courage, she peeked through the side window.
The squirrels filled the first step, fluffy tail to fluffy tail. Waiting.
She had to get to work — she couldn’t let Ken ruin the production. Besides, she wanted to quit, not be fired.
Nuts. Squirrels like nuts. She had those damned cashews!
The can opened with a vacuum-packed whoosh.
Cautiously opening the door a few inches, she threw the handful of nuts as far as she could, followed by another and another until the can was half empty. The squirrels mob briefly broke into discussions groups, reformed, then bounced from the porch after the prizes.
Placing the can inside the door, she grabbed her purse and sprinted to the car.
Denise arrived at work early, discovering Ken stomping around the parking lot cursing the weather. Roaring like a wild man, he flung the script at her as he stomped off to his luxury SUV.
She clenched her fists and tears came to her eyes from weeks of subdued, buried anger.
“I quit! Get another production assistant!” she screamed, the shrill announcement ending in a note of triumph.
Ken didn’t turn his head. He leisurely climbed into his SUV and drove away.
An icy glaze covered the city. Bushes and plants became crystal sculptures, and the grass spun glass. Sleet froze on the windshield as quickly as it hit, forcing her to set the defroster on its highest roar.
After a nerve-shredding drive, she finally took a wide, slow turn into her driveway. The car slid, then stopped.
Denise released her death-grip on the steering wheel and studied the porch.
There were no squirrels.
She had quit her job.
She was free.
The seductive memory of hot chocolate overwhelmed her. Delicately stepping on the ice-glazed steps, she unlocked the house, going straight to the kitchen. Setting the kettle on the burner, she walked into the bedroom to change her clothes.
The cashew can lay on her pillow.
She had left it by the door.
Heart pounding so loudly she could hear it, Denise crept to the can and peered inside. Empty.
Little claws pattered across the kitchen floor. She ran from the bedroom just in time to see a gray blur disappear around the corner.
They were in the house!
She needed a weapon.
The kitchen cabinet provided a skillet with satisfying weight and balance. Eyes straying to the window, she jumped in surprise — on the outside sill a row of squirrels sat peering at her. She ran back to the bedroom, retrieved the empty can and held it for them to see.
“I’ll get more. Just leave me alone!” It wasn’t her talking – it was someone else whining and whimpering.
The little grey shapes cocked their heads with puzzled expressions.
Denise growled in frustration. She understood it was ridiculous, but she pleaded with the creatures anyway. “It was an accident! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!” she shrieked. The grey shapes glanced at each other, waved farewell, and leapt from their perch. She dared peek through the curtain as they scampered across the frozen lawn and out of sight.
Desperately, Denise grabbed her purse and opened the front door. Sleet continued to fall, and the driveway was white with ice. But, the weather couldn’t stop her. She didn’t want to think about what would happen without more cashews.
She delicately tested the first step.
Her feet flew from beneath her. She was looking up at the grey sky, head throbbing. Falling sleet stung her face.
She sensed shadowy outlines with sharp little claws gathering around her. Feebly, she raised herself, slipping backwards against the slick sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” Denise croaked. “I’ll get more cashews.”
More of the creatures gathered in furry knots, as if conferring among themselves. Sleet hardened in her hair and seeped down her neck.
She tried again, pushing herself to her elbows. She slid back again. Sudden anger gave way to determination. She had finally quit her job, and was not about to freeze to death.
From behind, fluffy tails arched over her face, shielding her from the freezing rain. Others surrounded her in a sheltering phalanx. She didn’t pause to question the change in behavior. Breathing easier, she gathered her strength. The brief respite allowed her to mentally rehearse rolling over, and pushing up on all fours.
The sheltering tails disappeared.
“Denise! Get up!”
She squinted through ice-encrusted eyes. Ken loomed over her, the black hulk of his SUV nearby.
He shook her by the shoulders, making her head pound.
“I’m not going to let you quit. We’re not finished!”
She tilted her head toward the spectators chittering nearby. “I’ll get more cashews.”
Ken glanced over his shoulder. Denise sensed he was expecting her to solve this new problem.
“Maybe I shouldn’t move you. I’ll call 911.”
He dropped her onto the chilled concrete. She scrunched her eyes closed, imagining it made her warmer.
“Stay awake!” ordered Ken, slapping her cheek. “You’re faking this — just an excuse to quit on me.”
The stinging blow dashed any hesitation Denise may have felt. She spoke as loudly her chilled lips would allow.
“Don’t stop me. I must get more cashews.”
“Shut up. You’re delirious.” Ken hesitantly removed his imported jacket and held it over her. “Damn. It’s cold.” Reconsidering, he pulled the jacket back on. “Help’ll be here soon, anyway.”
A siren complained in the distance, growing louder and more intense in pitch.
“Here comes the ambulance,” announced Ken in his authoritative director’s voice.
A squirrel, bushy tail held high, bounded onto Denise’s chest, as if waiting for instructions.
“Get him. I’ll give you cashews,” she whispered.
Baring its teeth in imitation of a grin, the creature leapt away. Sensing something good about to happen, she relaxed as much as the concrete and ice would allow.
Ken spun around, glaring at his ankle. “Leave me alone.” His voice rose in pitch. “Hey, you f—cking little — let go!”
His screams echoed flatly through the rattling sleet. Peering through the ice-curtain, Denise watched grey shapes blanket a shrieking shape flailing on the sidewalk. Ken was drowning in a mass of twisting, flitting, grey streaks. The sidewalk glistened with thin red rivulets.
Denise rolled onto her stomach and wiped the ice from her eyes. A squirrel scampered in front of her, waved a tiny red-stained claw in salute, and gleefully returned to the fray.
She hoped the ambulance didn’t arrive too soon.
Like his favorite author, Chris Bauer started writing midlife as an unemployed oil company executive. In the last two years, he has had thirteen pieces published in quality markets like Twilight Times. Chris also discovered he's really a fantasy writer half his age.
Published by permission of the author.