By Patrick Barb
Chapter 3: The Coward
After delivering his cryptic sing-song words—warning, prophecy, nonsense, who knows?—Flippy’s eyes roll back in his head. Pushing away from Asher’s coal-colored face, he drops to the attic floor. The tiny flying squirrel’s head presses into the insulation, so it appears he’ll fall through, into the pink—a birth in reverse.
Behind the friends, the gray squirrels argue with DW in harsh whispers suggesting violence ready to break across the attic. Like a sky where someone’s tuned the sunlight until it’s too rich and saturated, warning of a raging thunderstorm to come. Asher’s got no time for bickering between three squirrels who threatened him with massive bodily trauma less than a day before.
Instead, he focuses on helping Flippy. There’s an ache at the bottom of his stomach, watching his friend thrash against the insulation. Domesticated, homebound with a Human-Family for years, the flying squirrel isn’t fit for the dangers of the outside world. (And no matter the walls, floor, and ceiling surrounding them, there’s no mistaking that the site of the infamous acorn cache is more “of the wilderness” than of the Humans.)
Asher reaches out and pulls Flippy to him. He holds his friend tight against his chest and mid-section. Nuzzling the top of his head, nipping his ears. Not violent, but reassuring. Making it clear he’s there for Flippy. He’s got him now and he won’t let him go.
“We’re gonna be okay, Flip. You hear me? We’re gonna be okay.”
“Every kiss begins with K…”
“There he is.” Asher playfully cuffs his smaller companion on the cheek after he mumbles more of his non sequiturs.
He steps back, letting Flippy stand on his own and get his bearings.
Black squirrel and flying squirrel turn in tandem at the sound of Chee-Chee the chipmunk clearing her throat. On the end of one of her tiny paws, the sock Asher found is now converted into a makeshift satchel stuffed to the brim with all the acorns found behind the insulation. While DW and the gray squirrels had it out over the urban legends on either side of their species divide regarding how the infamous cache got there and who’s loyal to whom, the chipmunk kept herself quite busy.
She holds the satchel out for Asher to take. “You want?”
Asher’s hesitant to accept the offering. But when he catches gangster Oakley Grey’s trio of violence and criminality putting their tense exchange on pause and covering the distance across the attic floor, he can’t resist lowering his head and letting Chee-Chee place the satchel around his neck.
Soon, DW’s in everyone’s faces. “What the hell’s going on here? Why the fuck’re you giving…him those nuts, chipmunk?”
No longer standing behind their boss’s consigliere, Maple and Birch push past DW. They tower over Chee-Chee and Flippy. And they’ve even got an inch or so on Asher. But he doesn’t budge for them. Instead, he keeps his paws flat on the floor. Like it’s another day navigating the gutters, drainpipes, and powerlines of their home, their prison—Majestic Forest.
Once the two thugs find their mere presence isn’t enough of a disincentive, they shuffle back. Knowing where their strengths lie, they let DW continue to speak for them. But it’s clear to any animal with two eyes, a nose, and a brain, something’s changed in the dynamic between Oakley Grey’s “esteemed” employees. DW stutters. Then, he clears his throat. Long and drawn-out, like he’s trying to summon his nerves up from the pit of his stomach. On one paw, Asher doesn’t blame him.
Seeing your people dead. Then, waking up all these suspicions, and you’re not even sure how they connect. Even with all the pieces available … I still remember the tree on fire. And the stink of something like Their gasoline and rotten eggs filling my nostrils. The gray squirrels watching…
But on the other paw: Fuck ‘em.
“You expect us to let this thief carry the motherlode?”
Before Asher responds, Chee-Chee speaks up. Pointing to the grays, she asks DW, “You trust them now?” And then, to the grays, about DW: “And you gray boys trust this foxy squirrel?”
The Grey Gang trio won’t meet each other’s eyes. Chee-Chee, not giving a damn, keeps going. “And would any of you trust me with those nuts? Or the Domesticated? He’d break his pwetty little neck carrying those things, yeah?”
Still no answer from the Grey Gang.
Then finally, DW stomps his back paw against the wooden floor and turns, slapping his tail across the other’s faces.
“Fine. Let’s get outta here. Ashy, you and your no-flying runt stick close.”
After the descent from the attic door and crawling down the trash peak, with Flippy riding on his back all the way, Asher opts to lead the others the very long way around the rat-trapped muck pile rather than risk another trip through it.
The crew navigates the longer way around in near silence. For a time, there’s only the animals’ breathing or the occasional wrinkle of old papers and discarded food wrappers under their paws. And nothing more.
Asher tries to focus on those immediate sounds, while ignoring the sense that the falling acorn’s still pinging off ceiling beams behind them, under them, and all around them.
It takes Asher a moment to process that Flippy’s whispering in his ear. The flying squirrel’s concern for his friend’s well-being is clear. Before Asher answers, Flippy tosses in a “Truth in Engineering” for his friend to chuckle at.
“Yeah, Flip. We’re almost done and then my debt’s paid.”
DW’s snort of laughter hurts like claws slashed across the belly or teeth clamped down on a jugular. Asher stops moving, the sudden flare-up of mental anguish’s so bad.
He doesn’t need to say anything to Flippy or even exchange a glance with his friend, the teeny flying squirrel knows when it’s time to get off Asher’s back.
Asher turns to face the chuckling fox squirrel. “What’s funny?” he asks.
Rather than answer, DW tries pressing forward, tries taking the lead back to the broken window. But Asher’s fast, blocking his way. Stamping his back paws and arching a brow to make it clear there’s no escaping the confrontation DW set into motion.
DW chuckles again and slows down. His drawn-out guffaws match his plodding steps. Asher dodges stray bits of debris as he moves backward, matching his pace to DW’s.
“You believe Oakley Grey’s gonna let you go?” DW asks him.
“We made a deal.”
Even as the words come, Asher tastes their wrongness on his tongue before they slip past his teeth and muzzle. Dread certainty itches at the back of his skull like fleas digging under his fur, burrowing through his bones.
“You wanna trust a gray squirrel deal? You wanna believe you’ll live your life without being put in debt to the smiling bastard from this point forward?”
Chee-Chee’s exaggerated Ooooooooh serves as the sole vocalized response from the witnesses. As he reaches a forepaw up and squeezes the satchel of acorns, Asher notes how Maple and Birch don’t react to DW’s accusations.
Something damning accompanies their acceptance of his words.
Seeing this recognition in Asher’s eyes, DW goes for the kill. “You ever wonder what kinda deal your family made to keep their ash tree all to themselves? How’d that deal work for ‘em?”
If he’s going for the kill, he gets the desired result. Asher roars and leaps at the fox squirrel. Claws out on all four limbs, ready for blood. The momentum’s enough to send DW onto his back, then rolling over again, so he’s on top of Asher.
The black squirrel bites into DW’s cheek, and he comes back with a mouthful of scratchy, salt-and-pepper fur between his teeth.
By this point, the fox squirrel’s overcome his opponent’s temporary advantage of surprise and sinks the claws on one of his forepaws into the pink scar tissue on Asher’s face.
The resulting scream sends Flippy shivering behind Chee-Chee, hiding his head under his membranous “wings.” Despite her gleeful reaction to watching more violence unfold, Chee-Chee still reaches a paw out to stroke the shivering flying squirrel on his head.
Hard to say whether it’s a comforting gesture or not.
Asher glimpses the interaction from the corner of his eye, a kaleidoscope sliver of experience, as he rains down blows on DW’s face and body, with the same blows returned in kind.
Blood trickles down the side of his face, before getting caught in the black of his fur. Scratching his opponent with deep gouging strokes from one forepaw, he holds his other limb against his own wound. The paw comes back thick and jammy with blood the color of the curtains—the last membrane between Majestic Forest and the Nut House.
Asher’s got no idea how far they’ve got to go to reach the window and the branch—the one that may or may not be waiting for their escape.
One of the grays, Maple, Birch—or it’s both, shouts as Asher shoves them out of the way and barrels full speed ahead into DW. There’s a loud crack following the collision. Asher hopes it comes from the fox squirrel’s body, but realizes soon enough it’s from one of the trash piles shook loose by their violence.
As the pile’s contents shift and spill, a domino effect’s triggered. Thin drinking glasses, used by Them instead of dipping faces into puddles, kept wrapped in crumpled tissue, fall and shatter like razor-sharp sleet. The squirrels and Chee-Chee hold forepaws over their heads and run for cover. More cardboard, metal, plastic, paper, and glass, all fall from tumbling towers of waste.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the make-up of the debris.
Everyone scrambles for safety, trying to get their bearings amid the ever-shifting landscape. Asher watches the gray squirrels gnaw through an empty shoebox after it falls on top of them. He wonders how Flippy’s faring. But before he calls out for his friend, he spies DW creeping over the plastic-sheathed cover of some tome. Its interior plastic sleeve pages spill out in a halo around the book. Each sleeve’s empty.
Asher flicks his tail from side to side, recalling the hunks of glass stuck there from the window sill. With another scream, not giving a damn what he sounds like or who’s listening, the black squirrel launches himself tail-first, ramming his body back against DW.
He slaps and slashes the fox squirrel’s face. Dragging his glass-studded fur across his enemy’s features. Over and over again, until DW’s black eyes are encircled with rings of red and he’s howling, begging for mercy.
But Asher doesn’t notice the bleeding, moaning fox squirrel. In his own bloodshot eyes, all that appears is the afterimage of the tree on fire, his family’s tree consumed by flames all those years before. Their screams and his quiet sobs those first few nights in the cages after the fire fill his head.
Yes, Flippy called from between the bars, stretching his tiny paw through the thin opening. Holding it there until I lifted my head and let him know I was there. I was…present.
When Asher lifts his head this time, he finds his friend a few feet away, balanced on a precipice. Flippy’s found the one bare spot on the entire second floor of the house. He teeters at the top of a staircase. The wooden floor’s cleared all around Flippy and Chee-Chee, who’s stuck by the flying squirrel. It’s as though the duo’s swept away all of the trash and filth found elsewhere, forming this oasis.
DW’s bloodstained teeth sink into the looser flesh of Asher’s limb and body, wrenching the skin from side to side, stretching and tearing the already damaged flesh. Not too concerned about this latest attack, the black squirrel smashes a free paw against his attacker’s nose to dislodge him. His focus stays on Flippy.
“Asher! C’mon! We found stairs here and a door—the front door! We’ll get out if we work together.”
Asher moves toward the stairs, dragging DW with him in a headlock. The iron tang of blood on his lips makes Asher’s teeth ache when he speaks. “Flip?”
It’s strange seeing his pal with a smile on his face. After all the terror and violence they’ve endured, the simplest bit of joy’s enough to make a heart ache. For Asher, the acorns around his neck, bouncing against his chest serve to drown out the bass drum beating of his heart.
Maple and Birch follow, shedding dust from their pelts. Asher closes in on the post and rail of the staircase. From this vantage point, he peers down at Flippy’s discovery.
While the stairs themselves appear clean, aside from a faint blue layer of dust spread over the planes of each step, the first floor contains another coating of garbage. This time, the bulk of the mess consists of brown and tan packages with packing tape peeled back and torn from all their sides.
Like during the winter when Flippy’s Human-Child tears open those brightly-wrapped packages and squeals with delight. What got freed from all those boxes down there?
DW groans in Asher’s arms. Asher releases his grip on his foe, letting the fox squirrel’s chin smash against the floor.
Then, he flips over and spits up into Asher’s eye. As the black squirrel wipes away the phlegm, blood, and spittle, more taunting follows. “You’re never leaving here alive. They’re whispering to me. They tell me…”
Asher moves fast, grabbing DW by his scruff and pulling him up onto his back paws. “What’d you say? Who’d you hear?”
He recalls his time under the slurry, rescuing Maple. He remembers the whispers pushing through the muck to reach his ears.
“Asher! Leave him! C’mon, we can do this! I know it!”
Bending his knees and stretching, Flippy’s high-pitched voice echoes like a triumphant victory horn played on a battlefield emptying itself of the enemy.
But he doesn’t.
The flying squirrel scooches back, his nubbin of a tail rubbing against a forsaken black plastic planter with gritty soil and no plant life within its concave interior. Then, he runs. Tiny paws slap against smooth wood. Like he’s got his personal applause section, cheering on his efforts.
Until he gets to the edge…and jumps.
Flippy lays himself flat, extending his arms. His wings catch the breeze blowing across the garbage. It carries the muggy, heavy scent of decay, but also pushes Flippy forward.
Right before he passes Asher peering through the rails, Flippy turns to face his friend and whispers, “Let’s go places.”
In this moment of peace, Asher wants to follow his friend into the promised land. He scurries to the top of the stairs, joining Chee-Chee in tracking Flippy’s descent. DW and the grays follow, but at a distance.
Flippy makes it past the bottom step. He pushes his arms back, coming in for a landing. From the top of the stairs, it appears he’s on a collision course with the door. Asher squeezes his paws tight, aiming to ward off anxiety. He’d hate for his friend to learn how to soar, only to crash again so soon.
He misses when the layer of boxes on the first floor shifts and shudders.
But he won’t miss, he can’t miss, the thick, white, bulbous head of the snake breaching the layer of waste. There’s no time to avoid teeth shiny with saliva or the black hole of an open mouth.
The snake’s winding form rises from a floor deprived of sunlight for days, months. Maybe even a year. It’s larger than any garden snake wriggling through the parkland grass.
Something monstrous and exotic.
Flippy’s left with nowhere to go. Nowhere but into the yawning abyss before him. Asher’s grateful he’s too far away to see his friend’s face.
It’s a good thing. It’d break me to see him. The awful notion pours salt in his wounds.
Asher makes out the gold-speckled eyes of the snake, gazing past the squirrels and the chipmunk watching from the stairs, peering through them as though they’re nothing to the beast. Its jaws close around the flying squirrel. Those gold-flecked eyes glimmer like the flames on twin match heads.
Light from darkness.
Then, the serpent dives under the debris. Wriggling, rustling cardboard marking its disappearance.
The snake’s retreat is smooth, like it’s swimming through pond water instead of solid waste. It’s clear the serpent’s had plenty of practice navigating the disaster that is the Nut House. His traversing of the filth doubles as an alarm. From every corner, the trash moves. Mini pockets of exploding debris mark the emergence of the denizens of this home.
With the first sacrifice consumed, the Nut House awakens.
First, the rats come. Twin bolts of starched fur and shit-blasted tails, wriggling pink, scratching their way up the parallel runners of the staircase. One, two, three, ten…more. A stream of ground-dwelling vermin with spittle flecks around their chewed-up and spit-out faces. They speak as one—talking in tongues, expressing themselves in riddles far more upsetting than Flippy’s aphorisms.
Gnashing teeth, biting the air between them and the interlopers, the rat army drive the squirrels and Chee-Chee down the stairs. Any division between the crew’s erased for the moment. Shock and fear take hold of them all, Asher, Chee-Chee, DW, Maple, and Birch.
Asher’s eyes dart up, down, side to side, and all around. No time’s left to consider what’s happened to his friend. Can’t stop to mourn Flippy now.
More creatures emerge from their hiding places amid the trash. The bugs come next. Cockroaches scuttling, moving in alien patterns. Flies dart and dip over the heads of Asher and company. Landing and vomiting, rubbing their black limbs together. Some rats milling behind the crew snap and swallow some of the insects, but others let tinier fruit flies crawl over their noses and across open pus-encrusted eyeballs.
“What the fuck, what the fuck…” DW’s incomplete queries come in choked whispers. Asher jumps when the fox squirrel grasps one of his paws. DW squeezes tight, forcing Asher’s attention back on him. His blood-heavy eyes suggest a separate nightmare all their own, going on inside DW’s mind.
The unmistakable yowling of cats precedes the felines coming around the corner, called forth from somewhere deeper in the Nut House’s first floor. Slinking atop the wasteland, the skin-and-bones-thin creatures, with their sunken eyes and angled cheekbones, shed fur with every step, then gather around the bottom of the staircase.
Rats above and cats below. And a menagerie of the other one-off creatures filling in the gaps. For once, Asher doesn’t remember the tree on fire. He’s found something worse, something more nightmarish and cruel.
The Nut House breathes the interlopers in. And then, it prepares to swallow.
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.