By Patrick Barb
Chapter 2: The Cache
Asher’s black fur bristles when his front paws touch glass shattered to dewdrop-sized pieces along the outer ledge of the Nut House’s second-story window. It’s the same ledge where Flippy crouched moments before, talking about something Asher and the others in their ragtag heist crew “had to see.”
Now Asher faces two pressing issues: finding where his flying squirrel friend went when he either fell (or was pulled?) off the ledge into the house and assessing the potential dangers he might face when following his friend inside.
He cups his forepaws around his mouth and calls through the jagged entrance in the busted window. “Flip? Flippy?”
“This is your B&E expert?” The sneer on DW’s face is obvious without the black squirrel needing to turn around.
Knowing that ignoring the asshole serves as a more cutting blow than any quip he’d toss over his shoulder, Asher stays focused on the task at paw. His tail brushes some of the glass off the ledge, tossing the shards back at the others. As the glass droplets land like melting icicles crashing from the eaves of houses onto damp sidewalks below, DW, the grays, and Chee-Chee the chipmunk perform a group soft-shoe to avoid the debris.
Some of the slivers of glass remain in the black squirrel’s coarse tail fur however.
Good. Might come in handy later.
Leaning closer, poking his head through the crooked entrance, Asher repeats Flippy’s name, whispering it into the unnatural darkness of the house. Something thick, a wall of darkness, like smoke, blocks Asher from picking out much of anything ahead or down below.
He’s not sure how long he stays there contemplating the darkness and listening for his friend’s response. However long, it’s too long for the other lowlifes making up their misfit band.
Someone presses against him, too close for Asher’s comfort. Figuring it’s the fox squirrel, he’s ready to retaliate in response to the unwelcome touch.
Except his glare’s met by Chee-Chee, blinking her eyes fast, crouching. Giving her all in a poor widdle woodland creature performance. “Oh please don’t hurt me. Please, please, please. Oh please.”
Sensing the act isn’t getting her desired response of discomfort and confusion, Chee-Chee rolls her eyes and nudges Asher aside. “Ah, you’re no fun anymore, Asher Black.”
He dips his head back from the glass, returning to the outside world.
“When was I ever—”
But before his question’s out, Chee-Chee pushes a paw through the opening. Asher falls silent. The tips of the chipmunk’s claws touch the darkness. When she does, it becomes clear to her and Asher, what’s blocking the illumination from outside is nothing more than the set of thick maroon-dyed curtains hanging across the top of the window frame. The thick, velvety cloth, like blood-soaked moss, displays rippled impressions across its surface, showcasing Flippy’s downward path.
“Kinda hard to find your buddy with this here, huh?” Chee-Chee asks.
This time, Asher gets two words out before Chee-Chee’s interrupting. And not with her teasing, unhinged sing-song nonsense either. Wiggling the nub of her tail, chattering in harsh tones, the chipmunk hops, skips, then jumps through the opening before Asher, DW, or the two gray squirrels can stop her.
“Goddamn crazy chipmunk.”
DW’s worked up enough courage to approach the busted window. Maple and Birch aren’t far behind him.
“Told you there was something in the house,” one of the grays says to the other.
DW, impatient with the current line of conversation, offers a firm rebuttal. “Knock it off, you two. There ain’t nobody in there, ‘cept for the lame ‘flying’ squirrel and the chipmunk bitch.”
“You’re all talk when she can’t hear you,” Asher says to the dark curtains.
Before DW fires off a “What’d you say to me, pal?” Chee-Chee’s laughter rises from beyond the blood-colored curtains.
“That’s what scared you? That?”
It unnerves Asher, the way the chipmunk’s high-pitched laughter sounds so much like screaming. Closing his eyes to center himself, Asher finds the burning tree of memory waiting. With no sanctuary available, he opts to face reality head-on. He opens his eyes, prepared to jump.
This time, DW does place a paw on the black squirrel’s shoulder, pinching enough so it’s clear what he’s saying isn’t up for discussion or debate. “Uh uh, Ashy. Maple and Birch go next. Then, you. Then, me.”
Asher says nothing in response to the news he’s set as the meat in the goon squad’s sandwich. He steps aside and extends his arm in a sweeping, theatrical gesture.
Maple and Birch aren’t too eager to take the plunge. But when the lengthy nails on DW’s back paws tap between the remaining glass shards, they hop to it. Their claws pierce the fabric of the curtain, before they turn themselves upside down, back paws pointing up and front paws to the floor. Once they’re past the sill, Asher prepares for his leap of faith.
As he jumps, he turns for one last glance at the world outside. He’s falling, but he swears he catches DW moving behind him, lifting the broken branch they’d climbed past the creamy yellow paint on the siding and onto the ledge. In this vision, the fox squirrel gives the branch a hard shove, eliminating the crew’s expected way home.
Asher’s too far gone in the darkness to witness that last part. But the sound the deadwood of the branch separating from the even deader wood of the window sill makes is unmistakable.
Hearing the absence, it’s what connects him to the trees, their leaves, their branches, and their seeds.
How am I so good at finding acorns? It’s simple. They talk to me, they tell me where to find them.
The confession isn’t something he’s willing to share with others. Not even with Flippy.
When Asher touches down on the floor, it slides underneath him. He scrambles to find purchase. It’s like stepping across wet leaves. The slick glossy magazine pages, coating the floor under the curtains, prove a tricky surface on which to gain traction. But Asher sinks his claws in deep, cutting through layers until he’s steadied himself.
He leans to the side when DW tumbles after him, cursing all the way. Studying the curtain again, Asher picks out gouges in the fabric from one too many sets of claws scratching at it.
Turning from the window, Asher’s eyes adjust to the dim lighting inside the Nut House. Going into the heist, he knew to expect the unexpected. But this strange scene’s far beyond unexpected.
Flippy’s on the floor, forepaws over his face, terrified of the thing casting a shadow across his body. Chee-Chee’s beside him, laughing in a way that substitutes for the terrified screams the flying squirrel would make if capable of finding his voice.
In silent contemplation before both animals, a naked Human-Child, with black eyes like the squirrels’, gazes down at the woodland creatures who’ve violated the sanctity of Their home. Unblinking. The child’s head is a soft pink with cherry red lips pursed, arms and legs the same color. But the body’s unshaded, a blank, nondescript white. More an absence of color than anything from the world of the living.
“Flip? You okay?” Asher asks.
Still holding his paws over his face, Flippy shakes his head back and forth.
Asher steps forward, putting on his bravest face to show his friend there’s nothing to fear.
He stops in front of the strange Human-Child. Her eyes remain open, her lips bowed. Nothing’s changing about her from one moment to the next. Asher stretches up, paw cracked and chapped, until a claw hooks onto the Human-Child’s forehead. The hard plastic surface gives like the skin of an acorn splitting from attention. Asher pulls, claws scraping across the hard black orbs playing at eyes. Of course, they’re not eyes. The Human-Child’s not alive. Not a Human-Child either. It’s a fake, an imposter, something made by Them to resemble Them.
DW moves in front of Asher again, using his tail to knock the facsimile Human-Child over. His claws tear through the imposter’s stomach, extracting whirling wispy streamers of cotton stuffing. “Doesn’t even bleed,” he mutters.
Flippy scurries back from the false Human-Child’s head. Lashes, long like claws, slide against those scratched glass orbs.
Rushing to Asher’s side, he sinks his claws into his friend. But the black squirrel doesn’t mind. He knows it’s nothing more than a fear response. More than anything, he’s happy his friend’s okay enough to hurt him. He’s pleased to see the flying squirrel moving again, no longer fear-struck.
Flippy’s mouth touches Asher’s ear and he whispers, “My Buddy, my Buddy, my Buddy and me…”
“Hey Dubs, check this out.” One of the gray squirrels, calls out to their de facto leader for the heist. Asher notes the way the fox squirrel grimaces, reacting to the nickname their real boss—their real gray squirrel boss—uses. He also notes how DW comes on their command. Chee-Chee’s stopped laughing, but she meets Asher’s gaze. Grinning.
She might not be all there, but she’s more aware than she lets on.
The whimpering at his side reminds Asher Chee-Chee’s not the sole member of the crew with unconventional insights. Only Flippy’s in no condition to provide his unique perspective in words indecipherable or otherwise. Asher brushes his front claws through Flippy’s fur. He whispers, gentle, like how he remembers his mother used to when he was a kit. “C’mon, Flip, we gotta keep moving.”
The layer of magazines under the window isn’t an anomaly, but the beginning of an unfolding pattern. Past the naked doll—yes, doll, that’s the word. Flippy’s Human-Child plays with them, the stapled stacks of peeled-off tree skin sit, piled one on top of the other. They fan out wide from the bottom and narrow at the top, producing an informal staircase for the crew to climb. Placing one paw in front of the other, they scurry to the top. Everyone makes sure to keep their movements controlled and precise, so the magazine pages don’t give way beneath them.
Asher’s sure they’ll get a better view of the floor’s layout once they crest the top of the pile of yellow-bordered magazines with strange creatures pictured inside the front cover frames.
Except when they reach the top, they discover it’s a mere hill compared to the mountains ahead. Glossy, unstable, stapled and stitched, magazine mountains. Some teetering on the edge of collapse, towering structures lurching to the ceiling. And not just magazines either, paper and plastic bags, bunched like wrinkled palms, hang between more solid objects.
It’s a hundred lives compressed, compacted into a tiny space. The impossible landscape stretches across the not-so-open floor, reminding Asher of a magpie nest his father showed him once, made from stolen pieces.
One time and never again.
Memories of his father lead Asher back to the tree on fire, his father screaming for him to help and…
He shakes his head, pushing the memories away.
Pressed to Asher’s side, Flippy whimpers another jumble-worded warning. “Red Bull gives you wings.”
“What the hell’s his problem?” Maple asks, getting a chuckle from Birch. Before Asher says anything, it’s DW whose claws slice across the chuckling squirrel’s nose. Tears well up in Birch’s eyes and when the fox squirrel hits him a second time, blood splashes in tiny dots across the magazines under their paws.
“You’re welcome,” DW says, but it’s uncertain who the comment’s meant for.
DW points from their lookout spot, gesturing at all the trash, the piles of books and magazines, the mounds of loose shopping bags and water-logged shipping boxes. Every creature assembled on the hill wrinkles their noses, confronted with a heady scent of urine and scat.
“Where the hell do we go from here?” DW asks.
Asher waits for the acorns to tell him where they’ll be found. He closes his eyes. Ignoring the nauseating odors of defecation and decay, ignoring the crisp scent of sun-baked paper crinkling like autumn leaves, he reaches out in search of a tree. Or to at least the possibility of one.
Before DW and others question how Asher’s meant to find acorns with his eyes closed, he opens them wide once again. There’s one direction he knows when checking for a tree—up.
Extending an arm, the claws of his front paw unfurled, Asher squints as he nails down the target for the others.
Across the space, hanging above the highest stack of detritus, a white string with a pearl sphere dangles, leading to an indentation in the ceiling. The rough outline of a rectangular door’s visible once they know what to check for.
“They’re in there,” Asher says, letting confidence in his abilities and instincts carry the day.
“Grand,” DW says. “How the fuck’re we supposed to get up there?”
Asher tests the stability on the other side of the junk heap they’ve set as their temporary base. One paw in front of the other, he brings Flippy along with him. “We climb down and then up. It’s what we do.”
* * *
Climbing’s not the only skill required to reach the Nut House’s attic and recover the building’s alleged treasure trove of acorns. Asher chastises himself for believing it’d be that easy.
Moving down the yellow-bordered hilltop, leaving behind the collection of slick, stapled pages, Asher leads the crew into a valley waiting for them between the garbage mountains. Here, there’s another thin layer of abandoned life, serving as padding above the floor, but nothing requiring any climbing. As they pick their way across frozen smiling faces and old Styrofoam packaging, they catch glimpses of rotting carpet, infested with mold in spots or pulled loose into wild strands in others, like an expansive rabid beast hides beneath the waste, waiting for an opportunity to rise and sink its teeth into one or more members of the crew.
Asher’s in the lead, but DW’s not far behind. The fox squirrel stays on him like a mid-day shadow. However, Asher’s got more pressing matters on his mind: finding the acorns and keeping Flippy safe. His forepaw slides through the top bun of an abandoned hamburger. What he expects to be rock solid proves a slimy illusion. The mirage of the burger crumbles on contact and Asher’s paw sinks through sodden layers. Pushing, until he touches the carpet below.
With quickness, he withdraws his paw and uses his other forelimb to hold the others back.
“Flooded,” DW says, stating the obvious so he sounds like he’s got some control over the situation.
Asher moves along the border, testing stability. Maple, Birch, and Chee-Chee join him, pressing their paws against the edge and finding too much give every time. Asher reaches one side of the hall and spies a gurgling, overflowing toilet, with dark water spilling across tile and flowing out into the garbage landscape. Like the stone fountain in the park, but tainted.
He calls for the others, pointing out the best way forward based on his assessment. He delivers the news in as clipped and concise a fashion as he can, aiming to avoid arguments.
“We’ve gotta go through the water,” he says. Pointing to the tallest peak of piled-up trash still standing ahead of them, Asher means to prove the leak stops short of the mound.
“It’s gotta be dry there. Otherwise, it’d crumble right in front of us.”
He’s surprised when no one argues or pushes back against his plan.
Asher takes Flippy on his back, letting his friend dig claws into his shoulders for the journey. The tiny flying squirrel’s heart thuds through his chest and sends vibrations up and down Asher’s spine. Chee-Chee rides on DW and the two gray squirrels bring up the rear.
The water here’s no summer shower puddle. There’s no heat radiating up from a concrete sidewalk. It’s cold and thick with a viscous quality to the liquid. Strands of tissue cling to wet fur. Flippy’s extra weight presses Asher into the soupy mix. The black squirrel keeps his mouth closed. Even still, the foul pollution touching his lips makes him nauseous. His nostrils stay above the wastewater, sucking in barely breathable air wafting off the surface.
“Swim faster, swim faster!” Chee-Chee’s got one of her forepaws dug deep through the fur on the back of DW’s neck. She waves her other front paw wildly.
When Flippy whispers, “Where there is man, there is Marlboro,” Asher checks behind him and finds they’ve completed their slog across the muck pond. He lowers his shoulders giving his friend a chance to disembark. DW and Chee-Chee reach dry land next. The fox squirrel brushes the chipmunk off and she nips at his tail. When he spins around, brow furrowed, she’s waiting. Licking her lips.
DW lowers his head and shakes himself dry with unchecked abandon. His tolerance heading toward an all-time low. But Asher’s focus falls on the gray squirrel duo still mid-way through the muck. The blood from Birch’s busted nose appears as thin streams of pale red, streaked across the mottled surface of the liquid. He’s swimming in circles, blood trails forming spirals. At the rate he’s moving, Birch is working himself into a frenzy. Finally, he stops and cries for help.
It’s the other gray, Maple, who requires the requested aid. From the distance Asher and the others are at, it’s hard to pick out the second gray squirrel. His head alone appears above the waterline. But the echo of his teeth chattering, bouncing against the vast canyons of refuse surrounding them, is unmistakable.
“He’s stuck!” Birch calls to the others.
“What do you mean?” DW fires back.
“Something’s got him! Come on, Maple, give it one more try.”
Asher studies the face of the trapped gray squirrel. In doing so, he blinks. Once. There’s the tree on fire, a majestic eruption of flames in the night sky. He blinks again. He’s falling after leaping through the disorienting clouds of noxious smoke, his body breaking on impact, and his eyelids closing, but not fast enough. Not fast enough to stop him from noting all the gray squirrels watching from the edge of the green space.
Watching, just watching.
Now when Asher watches, he observes Maple’s eyes widening and his mouth opening to scream in pain before polluted sluice rushes into his mouth. He chokes, vomits, and then chokes again.
Finally, his head goes under. Birch dives and comes back with his friend’s face between his forepaws. But it’s clear panic’s worn both squirrels out and the rescue effort’s coming up short unless someone else intervenes.
Asher flinches at the touch of a paw on his face.
The paw belongs to Flippy. “Go help him,” his friend says. “Just do it.”
There’s new life in the tiny squirrel’s eyes. His friend’s fierce altruism moves Asher like he’s caught an infection or had some curse placed on him. An obligation’s strapped like a heavy stone to his limbs.
Before he can resist, Asher returns to the muck and makes his rendezvous with the gray squirrels. Now, his heart’s thumping inside his chest, keeping him warm in the frigid temperatures. “What’s wrong?” he asks Birch, helping him hold Maple above the lapping water.
Maple manages to speak first. “T-t-t-tail!”
Birch finds his words as well. “Har-hard to get a clear look down there. Bu-but th-think there’s a tra-trap.”
Asher bristles at the word. Traps are more of a threat for indoor rodents to worry about. They pose a problem for mice and rats most frequently. Squirrels encounter the baited death traps every once in a while. During late evening break-ins at the convenience store or during trips into the custodial closet and bathrooms at the park. As a result, the encounters are much rarer for squirrels.
Asher knows enough about a little to grasp the seriousness of Maple’s situation.
Besides, we’re the ones inside now. Makes sense we’re dealing with inside problems.
It’s as much introspection as Asher allows. He doesn’t take another breath to consider the moral weight of his next decision. He gulps another big breath of semi-fresh, semi-corrupted air and dives.
His front paws and back paws work in tandem, slapping aside candy wrappers and dead flies, traveling through the sludge settled at the bottom of the flooded floor. He spots the wire-sprung trap, with its metal edge biting into Maple’s tail. Not sharp enough to slice through fur and flesh, but enough to bruise, or break bones even.
More than enough to hold the gray squirrel fast.
Asher can’t stay down any longer. He pushes up through the mire, hoping the direction he thinks is “up” proves accurate. When he breaches the surface, he finds less of Maple’s head above water than before.
Birch can’t even finish his question.
And Asher can’t nod his head or shake it no. He draws another breath and slips under again. His paws slash through sludge. He tries his best to avoid having his claws slice Birch or Maple’s stomachs or pinch their limp limbs. But as his cheeks and eyes widen, as he feels the muck sucked into his nostrils and splashing against his exposed eyes, desperation becomes the color of the day for the black squirrel’s rescue efforts.
His paws close around something heavy and flat. With strength sapped and air nearly depleted, he finds a silvered disc held in his forepaws.
Thick enough so if I wedge this piece between the trap and the gray’s tail, I can…
A pounding headache sends Asher shooting back to the surface. Maple and Birch are both gone. Disorientation means it takes a moment before the black squirrel understands they’ve both gone under.
Asher clenches his forepaws into fists and there’s a moment of relief when he discovers the heavy silver disc still in his grasp. Drenched black fur—sticky with waste—pulling him down once again, Asher takes another breath and dives.
So many things need to go right for what follows. He’s got to swim to the trap through opaque wastewater. He’s got to hold onto the disc. This means he has to rely on his back paws and the twitching remnants of his tail to propel him down.
When the trap appears in front of him, with Maple hanging loose and defeated above it, Asher works fast. He’s dealt with plenty of acorn caches out there with dried leaves or burrs used to either alert squirrels to intruders or to mark guilty culprits. There’s always a degree of precision required when pulling off a heist from those more security-focused stores.
But there’s something to smashing through dirt and ripping out rocks, sticks, and clumps of overturned earth to get the job done.
It’s this brute force Asher calls on now, pressing the disc between the metal clip and Maple’s tail. Pushing up, up, up, until he feels like his limbs will explode. Until he feels like there’s no more of himself to give and a moment of regret takes hold. Synapses fire. The burning tree’s etched across his eyes.
Then, he hears whispering voices amplified beneath the water. “You’ll burn too. You’ll burn too. You’ll burn…”
And then, Asher’s momentum sends him rocketing to the surface. The trap’s flung open. Before he travels too far, he reaches down, grabbing Maple by his scruff and holding tight. They breach the surface and Asher kicks for the comparative safety of the far shore. Over his shoulder, he catches sight of Chee-Chee and DW working in tandem to carry Birch back as well.
When the others reach dry land, Flippy brings over coffee-stained napkins, pressing them against the damp fur of the gray squirrels. Helping to rub them down. Both Maple and Birch vomit up the filth they’ve consumed. Maple’s tail’s bent to the side. He moves it gingerly, testing out its now-limited range of motion.
“Hurts,” he says.
Asher’s ragged, incomplete appendage twitches in sympathy.
“C’mon, let’s go.” DW takes the lead this time, heading up the tallest pile of debris.
The acorns promised are waiting at the top, through the door in the ceiling. Asher and Flippy bring up the rear this time. Continuing their explorations, Asher listens to the gray squirrels, consoling each other over their shared brush with death.
“Did you hear the voices down there too?” Maple asks Birch.
Asher holds his tongue, trying to put the pieces together.
* * *
Progress comes slow on account of injury and exhaustion. But bit by bit, paw by paw, the crew ascends the waste pile like it’s some crumbling remnant of a dead tree rotting from the inside out.
Caught in the drudgery of the climb, when Flippy speaks, the others all stop short. The flying squirrel leans close to Asher and asks, “What would you do-oo-oooo for a Klondike Bar?”
Asher waits for more. It’s different this time because the others wait as well. Impatient, DW groans, following with “The fuck’s that freak on about?”
Before Asher answers for his friend, Flippy finds his voice once again. “I always wondered how one gray squirrel got all those acorns into the house. I’m not sure one of them’s capable of carrying so many…”
On his them, Flippy nods toward the gray squirrels.
DW laughs. Then, resumes climbing.
“Mr. Grey’s relative was a resourceful individual. Not unlike Mr. Grey himself. When Majestic Forest wasn’t even Majestic Forest yet, when They were new, building their homes and destroying ours, he saw the writing on the bark. Back then, we had the grays, we had my fox squirrels, and we even had some black squirrels like ol’ Ashy there.
“Except the previous Mr. Grey understood the trend of things with houses springing up every day and more and more of our trees cut down and the ground made so nothin’ grew where they once stood. Grays and foxes fought tooth and claw and tail for the territory remainin’. Cuz territory meant resources and resources meant survival.
“The way Mr. Grey tells it, his relative got lost, turned around in a thunderstorm, found this cache of acorns…”
“And then? Do the Dew.”
Again, DW bristles at Flippy’s interruption.
“Then, well he fashioned some system for carryin’ ‘em all. Figuring them as unclaimed. Never mind he’d crossed over into fox squirrel territory.
“He headed home and fox squirrels gave chase. So, this Mr. Grey made a mad dash for the nearest raised structure. Which I suppose happened to be this house right here. He lost the foxes and hid the acorns.
“Eventually, They demolished the remaining trees where the fox squirrels lived, and Mr. Grey let them all leave to find new homes outside of what’d become Majestic Forest. On one condition: they leave someone behind. That someone was me. End of story.”
Except, when the story’s told in those rushed, clipped sentences, Asher finds doubt creeping in.
Haven’t I always wondered how the grays kept so much territory and every other group of squirrels got squeezed out? Hasn’t it never made sense…the tree on fire? Wonder if DW feels the same about his story too?
He keeps those questions somewhere safe. To himself.
Within the silence following, the animals reach the top. Asher and the others find themselves crowded together, sharing space on the slick, rectangular cobweb-coated magazine cover featuring a Human-Female, dressed in white, smiling. Lips red and inviting. DW—stretching to reach the pearl globe attached to the string in the ceiling door—scratches the Human-Female’s face off as he fights for stability with his back claws.
In reaching for the pearl, he tilts forward. Asher and Chee-Chee grab and pull him back. If not for their intervention, it’s a near-certainty he would’ve tumbled off into the myriad dangers waiting in the junk below. Once more, DW shoves them off and Asher’s grateful for his years spent learning to balance with a damaged tail.
If Maple got hit, he might not’ve stuck around to complain about it.
“You, flipping squirrel or whatever,” DW says, crooking a paw around Flippy and pulling him from his spot next to Asher. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and flap up there. Take a running leap and grab on to the shiny thingamajig, okay?”
Flippy hangs his head, not meeting DW’s gaze. The fox squirrel hooks a claw under the smaller animal’s chin and moves his head so they’re eye-to-eye. There’s no escaping. “C’mon. Tell me, what’s your name?”
Thrown by the question, Flippy answers. “Flippy. Mikey likes it.”
“Flippy? Mikey? Ain’t no squirrel I know going by a name like that. Right, fellas?”
The gray squirrels, no doubt shook from their twin brushes with death, take a moment before nodding in agreement. DW presses on.
“Take me, for example. They call me DW, but it’s short for Dogwood. On account of it’s what kinda tree I got myself born in. You can guess what tree your friend was born in and Maple and Birch over there too. No big mystery, right? So, unless your Mama squeezed you out in a Flip tree, I’m betting you got yourself another name. A real name.”
DW tilts his head as if to say I’m waiting.
Asher tenses. Ready to pounce. But then he feels someone’s claws pushing into his forelimb. A slow headshake from Chee-Chee follows.
“Willow, huh? Like one of them droopy, mopey trees, huh? All sad like, right?”
Flippy’s non-response is answer enough for DW.
“Yeah, that’s the one. The one where the branches all hang like this.”
Moving too fast, the fox squirrel grabs Flippy by his back legs and flips the flying squirrel over. He dangles the tinier, underdeveloped creature off the edge of the mountain they’ve scaled. Flippy squirms, forepaws battling invisible foes in the open air.
“They’re like this, right? Right? Right?” DW’s frothing at the mouth. Yelling his questions down at Flippy.
Asher pulls against Chee-Chee’s grasp, trying to break free and save his friend. But she squeezes all the harder for his resistance. Drawing blood. She leans in close and whispers, “You move now, he’ll drop the little one and it’s the end of his story. Find another way.”
“I’m sorry,” Flippy says. “I don’t remember how to fly or glide or anything.”
“Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” DW’s become a nightmarish motivational speaker, though what he’s encouraging isn’t clear. “You didn’t forget how to fly. You’re afraid to fly. You’re scared of the truth. Right? Right?”
“Dammit, Dogwood, leave him alone.” Asher’s seething, enraged by what’s happening and upset by the truth in Chee-Chee’s warning.
His protests make DW shake the trembling Flippy harder and harder, until the flying squirrel manages to squeak out an answer. “Yes,” he says, “I’m afraid. Afraid to fly. First in flight. Come fly the friendly skies.”
“Well, now’s as good a time as any to conquer your fear, Willow. Time to embrace who you are. I’m gonna let you go in three, two—”
Asher’s call makes every head turn in his direction. “We’ll do it another way. We’ll balance, one on top of the other. Grays at the base. You and me. Then Flippy, then Chee-Chee.”
DW’s head tilts, as he considers the plan as presented. “Mmmmm. I dunno. Seems complicated. Maybe I let your pal go n—”
Sometime in there, Chee-Chee’s released her grasp on Asher’s forelimb, so he drops, his belly pressed against the shredded magazine cover. Eyes wide against his black fur on one side of his face and the pink flesh on the other. He waves his paws, showing his submission to the other’s dominance. “Please, I’m begging you. Please, let’s try this other way.”
DW doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t smile or gloat. He reacts like someone who expected no less. He pulls Flippy back onto the garbage mountain and gestures for the two grays to get into place. They follow his lead, moving in silence, planting their back paws.
When Asher scrambles up Maple’s back and DW up Birch’s, they come face-to-face. The fox squirrel sneers. Then under his breath, he whispers, “With a face like yours, you probably always beg, Ashy.”
Before Asher retorts, Flippy and Chee-Chee follow, coming to complete the makeshift furry pyramid. Asher holds his tongue. When Flippy crawls onto his shoulders, he asks, “You okay, Flip? We’ll take a break. We don’t have to do this now…”
But Flippy shakes his head. “Built Ford tough,” he says. Then, before Chee-Chee climbs on his shoulders and grabs for the dangling pearl sphere, he adds, “I wanna be on top.”
“I sure love a squirrel who knows what he wants,” Chee-Chee says with a throaty chuckle followed by her more typical high-pitched chipmunk chittering.
“Flip, you don’t have to…”
Again, Asher’s protests receive a definitive silence in return.
The tower of animals complete, Flippy’s back paws digging into the place where Chee-Chee’s black and white-striped head meets the more common amber coloring on her shoulders, they all work together, aiming for a one-in-a-million trick.
All Asher has is hope, since he’s not a praying type of squirrel. He hopes the grays at the bottom hold their own, supporting so much weight. He hopes the bastard DW and Chee-Chee, wildcard as ever, do their parts. He hopes his efforts are enough and he hopes Flippy finds the strength to pull hard enough to open the door above them.
C’mon Flip, all ya gotta do is get the panel open when ya pull on the string.
“Almost got it…”
Just grab for it, pal. Reach up, reach up, and…
“Got it. I got it! I…”
Realizing they can all help, Asher calls to the grays. “Maple, Birch! Step back. We’ll hold onto you two. Chee-Chee, you hold onto me and Dogwood. One-two-three. Pull!”
The old door creaks open. A little. Then, a little more. With a loud pop of stale air—Whoomp!—released, it’s opening all the way. Chee-Chee leaps up and joins Flippy on the dangling cord, crawling up and then over onto the interior side of the hatch panel. From his temporary perch on the grays, Asher jumps, stretching his forelimbs, biting the air. Until he’s digging one paw into the plywood and reaching for Flippy with the other. He pulls his friend close, howling with relieved laughter. “You sunuvabitch! You did it, Flip! You really did it!
Asher drags them both up into the shadowed confines of the attic. With the panel dangling, it’s easy enough for DW and the grays to scramble after them. Flippy lays on his back, arms spread wide revealing his membranous pseudo-wings. He sucks in deep breaths of stale air. Asher, black fur against black shadows, rests his forelimbs on his haunches.
He searches for light. The bulb above their heads is long burnt-out. And whatever sunlight they’d get from a tiny oval-shaped dormer window across the attic is diminished by more tight-packed piles of old picture albums, video cassettes, dress boxes, and more. A lifetime of memories for the Human-Female reduced to mere obstruction for the invaders.
Wrinkling his nose, figuring sight’s out of the question, Asher tries to sniff out the acorns.
He moves slow, deliberate. The others trail behind, but he makes sure Flippy’s close. There’s less of the rot inside the house here compared to what’s settled across the second floor. But there’s still a sense of abandonment, a forsaken-land quality for the Nut House in the middle of bright and sunny Majestic Forest. It doesn’t add up. Puzzling out another mystery allowing his subconscious a chance to work on the more pressing concern, Asher can’t help but wonder, What happened to the old Human-Female? Did she leave like DW claims?
“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” says Flippy.
Before Asher follows up on the cryptic musings of his friend, the black squirrel’s nose presses against the squishy, soft embrace of something not unlike wild cotton or dandelion fuzz. He pulls back, the tiniest sliver of light shining through to show the pink and lumpy insulation, set up in the attic, covering the exterior walls of the building. Just as the darkness resembles Asher’s fur, this raw pink insulation represents his own scarred, burned flesh.
He touches a paw to his ancient wound. Then, he touches the insulation. It gives way to his touch. When he pulls his paw back, a hunk of pink fuzz comes with it.
There’s no more searching. Asher knows. The same way he always does.
“It’s in here,” he says. “Start digging.”
Teeth, claws, paws; the squirrels and the chipmunk put their whole bodies into the work. Asher digs up the insulation with a single-minded purpose. Not so much to find the acorns, but to get rid of them. To let his debt be repaid in full to Oakley Grey. When he breaches the cache and the acorns cascade around him and the others, Asher won’t even allow himself a moment to celebrate.
But Chee-Chee’s gleeful, indecipherable chirps and DW’s muttered “It’s real. It’s fuckin’ real,” serve as their victory celebration. Asher’s seeking something to gather the nuts in, eyeing a lone sock made for a Human-Newborn, the article left alone in the attic without its mate in sight. It’s something to work with, Asher decides. But when he grabs it, he notices the two grays.
Funny, how they’re not celebratin’.
Of course, they’d worked apart from Asher, Flippy, Chee-Chee, and DW. When Asher moves closer, he picks up their whispering.
“Put ‘em back, Maple.”
One thing about the brutish heavies of the Grey Gang? They’re not subtle. DW soon picks up on their conversation and heads over to the place in the wall where the two squirrels push the insulation back into place.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
They don’t answer.
The fox squirrel grabs chunks loosened by the grays’ previous efforts. He pulls them away. One, two, three.
Creating a hole he peers into.
The choked cry DW emits while gazing into the pink-encircled abyss stops Asher cold.
When the fox squirrel pulls away, there’s no chance Asher can resist peering inside as well.
Laid across the beams, he counts four skeletons. Elongated compared to what he remembers of the fleeting glimpses of his black squirrel brethren already consumed in the lower limbs of the burning ash tree. Black squirrel’s being close to grays except for coloration means the grays can’t be counted as the source of the skeletons either. Which leaves…
“Four fox squirrels,” DW says. When no one responds, he keeps talking.
“You know, I remember another story about the Nut House. Not the one they tell the gray squirrels like you and you…”
He slices his claws close to Maple and Birch. Driving them back against the insulation.
“They told it to us fox squirrels. All about the gray squirrel betrayal. Went in on a massive score of acorns, promised ‘em they’d split Majestic Forest 50/50, but then turned on ‘em. Killed ‘em all. Except he couldn’t take the nuts with him…. so, he settled for the story, the legend.”
Maple and Birch raise their paws. “Dubs, you got us wrong.”
DW moves closer, nostrils flaring, fur standing straight up on his back. “My name’s not Dubs.”
Touching his scabbed-over nose, a memory bolt of lightning shooting through him, Birch takes the first step to meet the fox squirrel. Asher steps back. DW’s foot slips on top of a lone acorn, rolled out from the assembled pile. It sails through a hole in the insulation, and they all turn to watch.
Pinging like hailstones against the cobbles of the park walkways, the nut bounces off the wooden beams and then hits a pocket of open space. Before it falls down, down, down.
It’s hard to tell for certain, but by the sounds coming up to them and the length of time they hear the acorn falling, Asher guesses the nut’s gone past the second floor and slipped to the first floor. Where they haven’t gone.
Where we don’t need to go.
Flippy pulls Asher close, so their noses touch. He points to the hole in the insulation—with the dead fox squirrel skeletons and the falling acorn.
“The best part of waking up…is Folger’s in your cup.”
To be continued.
* * *
Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and horrifying tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His debut dark urban fantasy novella Gargantuana’s Ghost is coming from Grey Matter Press’s Emergent Expressions line in Fall 2022. His debut dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting is coming from Keylight Books in 2023. In addition, he is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association and a Full Member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. For more of his work, visit patrickbarb.com or follow him on twitter.com/pbarb.