Charon

Two squirrels sat outside my window. I sipped coffee inside, at my kitchen table, pretending to read a book. It was two thirty in the afternoon on a Friday. I had called out of work sick that morning—though I hadn’t been sick—for no good reason, aside from a foreboding feeling unlike anything I’d ever felt on a Friday morning.

I felt guilty, calling out. It wasn’t a thing I often did. Neither guilt nor sickness were common to me. My wife could have attested to this, had she been there.

But it was only the squirrels and me.

I took another sip. I turned a page, and then turned back, because I hadn’t finished the last one. The squirrels stared on. They were gray things, and skinny. There was no need for the skinniness. We had a bird feeder out front, under the oak, intended for chickadees, and though rodents often got into the seed and spilled it everywhere, annoying the much prettier birds, I had never replaced the feeder with one more rodent-proof. At one time I had larded the pole upon which the feeder sat, but the rodents only leapt down from the tree, and after some time a skunk and licked away all the lard. 

The squirrels sat and watched, and I took more coffee and fidgeted. I stood, and went to the fridge, and took out a piece of leftover pizza with broccoli on it. The squirrels did not look at my food.

Back in my seat, I listened for birdsong through the open kitchen window, but there was nothing to hear except the gentle shush of wind through oak leaves. The squirrels swayed with the branches, and if I had been an animal with a good nose, maybe I would have smelled their scent as the breeze carried air through the kitchen and past me.

I took one bite of pizza and then turned to the squirrels. They were perhaps a foot from the window, bending down a branch with their weight. It wasn’t much, between them. Their faces seemed threadbare, like those of plague-bloated, mangy rats, and I was glad of the window screen separating us. As I turned toward them, I made a fake gesture of waving my arms, and glaring, and of making a “Bleh!” noise that would have made my wife roll her eyes had she been there.

The squirrels sat, and watched, and did not move. It was as though they had died in my tree, and were only as a matter of chance at an angle that made it appear as though they were observing me read. At that point, the kitchen became too stuffy for me, and I determined to go upstairs.

Stomping up the stairs, I reveled in the noise that sounded as though a person was in the house, as though someone human lived here. I needed it.
My bedroom was large, on the corner of the house, and had four windows. I opened each one, and the cross breeze moved the bed skirt. My wife had learned how to make a bed from her grandmother, and so had learned to do it right. I was glad one of us knew how to. She tended to those sorts of things, and I took down wasp nests and killed rats in the basement.

I lay down on my bed, picked up my book, and failed to read it. Holding it open before me, I contemplated my role as exterminator for the house. Where vermin lurked, there I prowled. It was my duty as husband and protector. Though the rodents in the tree were harmless, being only starving squirrels, my wife might not see it in such simple terms. When she came home in two hours, she might put her things down on the kitchen table, draw a glass of water from the sink, and raise a casual glance to the gentle swaying of our oak in the breeze.

Then imagine her shock and revilement when, hoping only to come home and relax, two vermin should mar her view of the yard!

No, that would not do at all. For my wife, as her husband and protector, I had a duty in pestilential elimination. In epiphany I stood, and glowed with renewed purpose. I turned to the closest window, and laughed at Nature, whose offspring I would crush beneath my heel— 

I choked on the laugh. Two squirrels sat on a branch outside my window. They watched, unmoving, scrawny.

Full of a majesty akin to Hannibal’s trans-Alpine charge, I pivoted and left the room, slamming it behind me in my joy. I had a purpose! Even on such a day of coffee and cold pizza and out-of-work calling, I had a thing to do. Before I could do it, before I could set things right to prepare for my long-suffering wife’s return, I needed to fetch the proper tool for the job.

I stomped down two flights of stairs, into the basement. Past the dusty box of VHS tapes, over the pile of oily rags, around the furnace into which I threw the shattered corpses of rats when they grew collectively too bold.

There, against vacuum-packed stacks of old clothes was the rifle I had inherited from my grandfather, a sticky M1 Garand. I wasn’t a great shot, disappointing every one of my male relatives on the one occasion I had gone with them to the rifle range, but I had a feeling Fate would bless me on this day with the arm and eye to lay waste to the invaders of my homestead. I loaded a clip of eight rounds into the magazine, swaggered back upstairs in the mode of Achilles armed for war, and crossed to my front door.

Throwing it open like the gate of Hell, I confronted my lawn and the picket fence beyond. The squirrels drifted in the breeze. Silent. Leathern. Unmoving. I swiveled my rifle before me, put the dead-eyed face of one vermin in my sight, and prepared to pull the trigger.

Unmoving. I swiveled my rifle before me, put the dead-eyed face of one vermin in my sight, and prepared to pull the trigger.

But as I was searching for a proper one-liner with which to end that vermin’s life, I heard the scream of a siren in the distance. It occurred to me that discharging my rifle in the middle of a quiet suburb might not be the wisest course of action.

However, I was clever. I was bold. I possessed a human intelligence the like of which my rodent pair could never hope to fathom. It was well within my ability to relocate, to travel great distances in search of a place where I could slaughter vermin and not rouse the alarm of the local constabulary.

In fact, I had a cousin who lived in the woods twenty minutes away whose abode would be just such a place. I walked to the car, put my rifle on the floor in the back, and started the engine. After buckling, before reversing into the road, I shot my adversaries a knowing smile. I would move, and they would follow, and once the playing field was level, then our fun would begin.

And follow they did. When I turned back to the road and stepped on the accelerator, I saw the vermin on a telephone wire a good way in the distance. Sitting. Bobbing in the breeze. Watching me as I went.

Unable to contain my glee, I sped down the street and toward the stretch of hill which would take me to the interstate. Down I went, relishing the speed, lowering the window to let the augmented breeze tickle my nose and brow.
I stepped, stepped, stomped, panicked. The highway rushed up, and I did not slow.

The final hundred-foot stretch of road.

Brakes that refused to work.

Squirrels watching from the stop sign.

Gray, unmoving, wafted by the breeze.

***

When the woman next returned home, she slipped a crisp twenty into the bird feeder.

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