One warm Friday morning, Harold went out to his back porch to read a new collection of short stories edited by Haruki Murakami. With no classes to teach until afternoon, Harold relaxed. It had been a long week. Foraging through countless midterm papers had left him hungry and irritable, wondering if anyone ever listened to his lectures. Half the students didn’t bother to read the books that they were supposed to write about. To make matters worse, Harold had stumbled upon a website where students evaluated their professors. His marks were poor at best and the comments left by anonymous—a euphemism for “spineless” in Harold’s estimation—students were snarky and snide. When he checked the entry of his inveterate rival in the Asian Studies department, Peter, Harold was even more crestfallen. Peter had managed to eke out the narrowest of victories on the computerized ranking: 2.2 vs. 2.1 on a scale of 1 to 9. Harold’s mind whirred as he tried to remember how to calculate standard deviation and margin of error. But he made as much progress as a fly trying to pass through a glass window. Harold had never excelled in math, unlike Peter, a veritable renaissance man of Asian letters. And despite their numerical proximity, comments about Peter were devoid of witty scorn. This was more galling. How could that worthless curmudgeon, Harold wondered, not have inspired even a drop of vitriol? He hoped Peter would not discover the website, for a gloating email would surely come, detailing Harold’s leaden presence in the department. “Prestige and reputation,” Peter liked to write and trail off dramatically with bead-strings of periods.
As Harold sat down in his chair, however, he rubbed a gray eyebrow and smiled. A plump squirrel pranced about the lawn like an overweight ballerina. Peter had been wrong and the rotundity of squirrel was a reminder. In a cheerless conversation the previous autumn during the department’s Halloween party, Peter had fatally misstepped. Dressed in a 19th century Chinese bandit’s costume and mildly drunk from a bottle of turpentine-scented sh?ch?, Peter had waddled over and said, “Harold, it’s going to be a long winter. The squirrels,” he licked his lips, “are fat. Have you seen how bulbous they’ve gotten already?” Since Harold offered no reply, Peter took another swig from his green glass and continued in his sluggish, meandering tones, “Absolutely bulbous little creatures. And you know, surely, that means a long, long winter. Snow country, you call it, right? A friend of mine researched such a thing and found it to be,” he paused, “true.”
Harold took a drink of club soda and proceeded to have a coughing fit. Always a friend, he thought as he tried to catch his breath.
Though looking ridiculous in his costume, replete with a fake, wispy beard, Peter sneered.
The winter was the warmest on record for St. Louis. Harold could hardly hide his delight in Peter’s presence as the mild winter days had piled up. Spring came early and in bursts. The fat squirrels on campus stayed plump and lazily passed the days. Harold considered rubbing in Peter’s mistake, but thought better of it. He had once tried to take Peter to task for one of his more egregious errors (claiming that Japan had yet to win a Nobel Prize in literature even though they had two) but was received by a perplexed look from Peter, who retorted, “Are you quite certain that I was the one who said such a thing?” Stung, and thoroughly convinced Peter was lying, Harold had seethed and lost all the words that he had rehearsed for the confrontation. Of course, whenever Harold made a mistake Peter would pounce. And Harold suffered the agony of honesty in the moment—he couldn’t conjure lies on short notice. When it came to the written word, however, Harold had no trouble deceiving Peter or any close relatives. He more than held his own in the silent arena of memos and email.
Harold tried to push Peter out of his thoughts, not wanting to risk spoiling the pleasant morning. He flipped through the book until he found a story about an alcoholic dragonfly who needed a new clasper. It would do the trick. But before Harold settled into the story, a squirrel in the sparse lawn caught his eye. It shuffled along as if drunk. Harold, with Peter’s blunder still in mind, wondered if this meant a rainy spring. He chuckled to himself and watched the dazed squirrel crawl in circles over the grass. Since his vision was poor, even with trifocals, Harold walked over to investigate. The squirrel paid no attention to the knotty man no matter how close he came. It kept struggling—always to the left. Harold squatted down for a better look, his knees crackling like glass marbles. The squirrel was missing a forelimb. Wounds covered its neck and an eye had been lost. The gray fur was stained the rusty shade of coagulated blood. Harold suspected his cat, Mishima, who watched with interest from a chair on the deck.
The squirrel had no fleas. Harold found this peculiar: he had had rescued many squirrels from Mishima’s jaws and they had all been covered with fleas. (Once or twice Harold had wanted to keep a few to release in Peter’s office, but Mary, his wife, had foiled each plot.) No matter how closely he examined this squirrel, Harold couldn’t find a single flea. And the squirrel was oddly tranquil. Normally, they were fearful and trembled in his hands. This blood-soaked little beast never even seemed to notice Harold. He laid it back down on the grass and went over to Mishima. Harold inspected her for evidence, but she no blood on her fur. “Aren’t you a dainty little thing,” he said. Once she was back in the house, Harold got out a shovel and began digging the squirrel a grave. All the while, the bloody squirrel silently made circles in the thin grass.
When Harold finished digging, he grabbed a piece of firewood. The squirrel was doomed anyway, Harold reasoned. He gave the squirrel a good whack on the head, but it didn’t seem to notice. Duly impressed, Harold frowned and watched the squirrel continue to lurch forward and to the left. Harold swung again. This time he crushed the squirrel’s skull.
As Harold finished covering the tiny corpse with dirt, Mary came out and said, “What are you doing back there in my garden? You don’t weed with a shovel. And what’s that log for?”
“I’m not in your garden.”
“Yes you are. That’s where the tulips come up.”
“No, they come up over there by those daffodils,” Harold said.
“Whatever you say dear.” She put her hands on her hips. “So, what are you doing in my garden?”
“Burying a squirrel. Poor little fella’. I’m not in your garden.”
“Wonderful. Now my garden’s a cemetery.” When Mary was annoyed, her Boston accent surfaced. “Did the cat get one?”
“I think so.”
“That’s strange. She was in all morning,” Mary said.
“I just put her in.”
“Yeah, but I put her out a minute ago. That’s why I came out—I wanted to know why she was back inside so soon.”
After a stretch, Mary said, “That’s funny.”
“What’s funny about a dead squirrel?” Harold grumbled.
“Martha called yesterday and—
“You know, Martha Cummings. Lisa’s friend.”
Harold still had no idea who either were but said, “Oh, Martha, yeah, Lisa’s friend.”
“Yeah, Martha. She called and they had a dead squirrel turn up in their yard this morning too. Fell right out of the tree.”
“Did it have any fleas?” Harold asked.
“Fleas. Did it have any fleas? It’s a simple question.”
“How should I know? When Martha calls and says a squirrel fell out of a tree and almost hits her little girl on the top of the head, I don’t think about whether it has fleas. What an odd question—does it have any fleas? Hah. Wait, are you scheming again?”
Harold said, “I’m hungry. I’m going in. Want some eggs?”
The squirrel that nearly fell on Martha’s daughter did have fleas. What Martha had neglected to tell Mary was that the squirrel was bleeding profusely when it plopped down out of the magnolia in their backyard. Her daughter had gotten quite a shock when the sopping squirrel landed next to her knee, stray drops of crimson wetting her jeans. Martha scooped up her daughter in her arms and stared at the squirrel. Its lower torso was covered with dime-sized wounds, as if something small had taken bites of flesh out of the animal. The squirrel struggled to flee but its limbs were failing. After a minute it appeared to collapse in the throes of death. With a panicking daughter and a dead squirrel on her hands, Martha called Animal Control. Then she changed her daughter’s jeans and assured her that the squirrel had had an accident.
“Do squirrels bite people?” the girl asked.
“No honey, they don’t. They like nuts and pinecones.”
After a mere ten minutes, a pudgy man with flushed cheeks knocked on the door. “Wow, you’re here quick,” Martha said.
“Was in the neighborhood on another call. So, you have a dead squirrel on your hands?”
“Yes I do. It fell out of our magnolia out back. I think something attacked it—lots of little bites everywhere.”
The Animal Control officer stared at her, then asked, “Like something had helped itself to a few mouthfuls from its hindquarters?”
“Yeah…but more than a few,” Martha replied.
“We got a call about an incident like that yesterday, out in the county. I didn’t go on the call, but the squirrel survived. By the time one of our officers got out there, it was gone.”
They stared at each other a moment.
“Could’ve been a hoax,” the officer added.
“I don’t think this squirrel is going anywhere.”
Yet to their surprise, the squirrel had disappeared. “I don’t believe it. Really, it was just here—dead—and now you must think I’m a loon,” Martha mumbled. But a patch of drying blood convinced the Animal Control officer that she wasn’t telling stories. With a deep breath and a deep grunt, the man got down on his hands and knees and looked at the blood. Martha watched, mystified. He followed a small trail of blood leading towards the magnolia. A few drops clung to the trunk, but the trail ended after a few yards.
“Squirrels are tough little suckers. Snakes, too, you should have seen this blue racer that survived a run in with a lawnmower. Had so many kinks in its—
His cell phone rang, playing The Flight of the Bumblebee. He answered it and squinted. “Ok, I’ll be right on it.”
Martha looked at the sweaty man. His eyes were bloodshot. He smelled funny to her.
The officer folded up his cell and said, “Another squirrel, can you believe it?”
“No, the Central West End. It couldn’t be our little guy here.”
“Ok, thanks for coming. Sorry about the false alarm.”
“No problem,” he said, wearily. “Call again if our buddy shows up.”
That evening Channel 4 reported an incident involving squirrels. The newscasters were a bit sheepish during the lead into the story. A reporter on the scene began by saying, “Before we run this clip, I must warn you that if you’re an animal lover, you might want to look away. The following footage is very graphic and very disturbing.” As the reporter began to remark on the bizarre nature of the incident, the screen showed a hackberry swaying in the wind. The reporter stopped speaking and the angry yelp of a squirrel could be heard on the clip. A dark shape fell out of the tree. For a moment, the camera frantically searched the ground for whatever had fallen. The lens focused on a bloodied squirrel. Without warning, four more squirrels plopped down. The first squirrel unleashed a furious squawk and tried to hobble away, but the pursuing squirrels soon surrounded it on the sidewalk. They closed in and piled on top of the wounded squirrel. The squawks and screeches rose in intensity; the camera zoomed in; the squealing squirrel went still.
The clip ended and the pale-faced reporter appeared on the screen again. “This may not be an isolated incident,” he said. “We’re getting reports of other incidents involving squirrels across our viewing area. The carnivorous squirrels seem to travel in bands while seeking out their prey. Animal Control requests that everyone keep their pets indoors and if you see any squirrel acting suspiciously please report it to Animal Control at once. Do not handle any animal that appears to be sick since it is still unclear what exactly is causing this strange phenomenon.”
The anchor cut in, “Have there been any attacks on humans?”
“None yet. Currently, we have only reports of…squirrels killing squirrels.”
“Thank you. Now to sports. Tonight the Blues are back in action after…”
Harold and Mary watched the report together. Mary said, “That was disgusting. They looked like a pack of hyenas. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“I once read that some squirrels in Russia attacked and killed a stray dog,” Harold replied over the newspaper. “Apparently there weren’t enough pinecones to eat and they got hungry.”
“Horrible. But this is their own species. What kind of animal does that?”
Harold sighed. “Lions, langurs, guppies, L.A. cops, you name it. Now squirrels. Not a big deal if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you.”
“Yes you did.”
“It was a rhetorical question. Anyway, I don’t care what you say dear, it’s unsettling to me.”
On Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. sharp, Harold and Peter arrived at their department’s building. Lately, they had been coming in earlier and earlier on weekends, hoping to arrive first. Work always went faster knowing that the other was at home with a mind yet to spark with scholarly fervor. As they entered the building from opposite ends, they walked down the hall toward the Asian’s Studies’ department office in the center. A custodian didn’t bother to glance at the half-blind men as they stared at each other from afar, wondering who it was that walked towards them. Peter’s eyes were slightly better so he took the first sip of annoyance. Why does Harold, he wondered, insist on coming in early? Is it just spite me?
Harold’s stiff lenses finally focused on Peter and similar thoughts awakened a throb in his head. They both considered what to say as they drew near, and who would be quicker to the key to the department office. Each pretended not to hurry, nonchalantly accelerating while rummaging through pockets for the key. The custodian was aware of the mutual enmity and stole a glance when the awkward pair met at the door.
“Professor Tilton,” Harold grumbled.
“Professor Williams,” Peter replied, beating Harold to the punch with the keys. With an impatient nod, he ushered Harold into the office. Irritated, Harold made a bee-line to the cubby holes, only to find his empty. They had the same thought simultaneously: It’s Sunday, idiot. Bursting inside, Harold gave Peter a steely look and started to leave the department office for his own. Peter bit and started to say something, but Harold cut him off.
“Did you hear about the squirrel business?” Harold quizzed, an algorithm of attack laid out in his mind.
“Of course. I didn’t realize the news traveled to your navel-gazing isles,” Peter shot back, using his usual epithet for Harold’s beloved Japan. But then Peter was overcome with a coughing fit. Hacking, he found a tissue on the secretary’s overflowing desk.
Harold couldn’t help but beam with schadenfreude and seized the opening for making his conventional dig at Peter’s beloved China, “Are you ok Tilton? You might just be the sick man of our dear Asian Studies department. Recall that Korea doesn’t count.” The only thing these two ever agreed upon was their tacit dislike of the professor of Korean history. They had both opposed his hiring on specious grounds.
“I’m fine,” Peter said, “just a touch of the squirrel flu.”
“Are you hungry? I ran over something on the way here.”
“Hear the CDC chief say that the squirrels don’t quite die, but—
“Go to sleep like Shakespeare’s Juliet,” Harold interrupted. “And a reporter from the Christian—
“Science Monitor reporter quipped,” Peter volleyed, “‘But Juliet didn’t wake and eat her dear Romeo.’ Clever, clever.”
“And CNN’s Night of the Squirrels.”
“I preferred Fox’s biblical hue: The Plague of Squirrels. Keep your pussycat indoors.”
Harold squinted. “I see your wife must have let you have cable again. How’s the old Hitachi running?”
Peter said nothing, wishing Harold did not recall his only Japanese possession. Besides, his wife’s old TV that outdated their marriage.
Harold continued, “Have you ever even seen the Night of the Living Dead movies? Perhaps they’re too low-brow for you.”
Peter frowned and dug in, “Romero said something quite remarkable, actually. On one of those unbearable weekend news shows—
“Saturday Morning Hot Seat,” Harold interrupted.
“He said something like, ‘Since I dreamt of such things when I was a child, it—
“‘Doesn’t strike me as odd that this is happening. Now—
Peter continued, as if he had been speaking, “‘I’m glad we, human beings, haven’t suffered a similar fate and the chaos of this so-called—
“‘Squirrel plague has been relatively…” Harold trailed off, forgetting the last word.
A moment passed as both men could not remember what came next, but pretended to test each other. After another moment passed, it grew awkward. They each considered the possibility of making up the remaining bit, but were unsure if the other would call the bluff. Harold went first, taking the plunge, “What I find most intriguing, personally, is that squirrels, yes, squirrels, are falling ill. Never had I—
“Fathomed that squirrels—herbivorous rodents—would become so violent. It’s easy to imagine it with people, it’s our nature—but not with squirrels’.”
Another uneasy silence ensued after the free-styling duet. Without another word, Harold and Peter then retreated to their respective offices, each feeling victorious. But the conversation had left each man curious about the current state of the epidemic. Once away from each other, they set upon listening to the radio, quietly, and scouring the internet for the latest updates. Neither got any work done. Harold, recognizing his jaunt to the office was fruitless—except for the joust—left first, though he was careful not to alert Peter of his departure. Peter, frustrated with the news, simply took a long, peaceful nap in his office.
The evening news was full of stories and footage of rampaging squirrels, but little information for the professors to savor and take mental notes for future combat. No one understood what was going on. There were constant warnings to keep pets indoors and for people to avoid the marauding squirrel packs. In another press conference, the CDC chief explained that the outbreak was spreading beyond the Midwest in an eastward fashion. The South was still largely untouched. He emphasized that Animal Control and all law enforcement agencies were doing their best to round up the rogue bands. When asked if the disease could infect humans, the chief rubbed his forehead and sighed. “We don’t know. So far, thankfully, there have been no human cases reported. However, I would advise everyone in the lower 48 to avoid all contact with squirrels.”
Late Sunday evening, the chancellor sent out an email to the entire campus. Upon the advice of the local health department, all classes were suspended until further notice. Harold, who didn’t ever check his email at home, went to campus anyway. He thought it was odd that the department’s building was still locked. On the way to his 9 a.m. lecture, he didn’t notice the absence of students milling around outside. It wasn’t until 9:30 that Harold realized no one was coming to class and something was not quite right.
Peter, who began each day with coffee, a blueberry muffin, and email, stayed home. After his wife left for work, he went out to the garage to find an old shotgun. He hadn’t touched it in 30 years, but the hysteria rose in him like a mosquito bite: it itched a little at first, but the second he scratched, it swelled and wouldn’t leave his thoughts. Peter scurried to a gun shop, only to find it packed. Men in camouflage hats and aviator sunglasses filled the store. No one spoke; eye contact was impossible. There was a high-pitched tension in the air. The only sounds were from the cash register, ringing and jangling as coins and bills entered and left. Peter felt himself sweating. Another spike of fear shot through his vitals. If they see me sweat, he worried, they’ll think I’m infected. Stop. No, don’t be foolish. Damn it. Why can’t I stop sweating?
Out in the parking lot, the sound of car engines and wind soothed Peter’s nerves. The flutter of human voices helped, too. As he approached his car, a clean shaven man in a white, button shirt and khaki slacks stood leaning against a pickup. A small group surrounded him. As Peter approached, he heard the man speaking in an earnest tone, “Since everyone agrees that this is a problem and the government isn’t doing a thing about it—as usual—I think we should do something.”
There were murmurs of approval.
“Now, I know all of you here respect our Second Amendment, right?”
“Amen,” said a gray-bearded man.
“So why don’t we start taking care of things? I mean, there’s no law against hunting squirrels. No limits. Am I wrong? Let me know if I am.”
“Ok, what I propose is this: we gather out at Hillsboro, you know, south on the I-55 a ways, and meet, say…at the Hardees parking lot. They said on the news that down south is where it seems to be coming from, and that’s where it’s the worst. Bring your weapons, plenty of that live stuff you just bought here, and a few beers for when our work’s done. Hell, bring a machete, or a club, too, if you got one—they say the head is what matters. No offense, but not everyone has the steady hand to shoot a squirrel in the head from 50 yards while it’s racing full-bore. What do you all think?”
Everyone agreed. Those who had pickups would drive them down. If the numbers held, they planned to divide up into posses. Peter was struck by the swiftness and simplicity of the plans. People were dispersing before he had time to consider it. The man who spoke for the group kept leaning against his pickup, offering words of encouragement to people as they went on their way. Peter slowly made his way over to the man, feeling the need to know something about him.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t mind, could I ask you question.”
The man smiled. “Shoot.”
“What do you do for a living?”
The man’s eyes widened. “I’m a massage therapist. I also do acupuncture and studied Chinese medicine for a few years in Los Angeles. Can’t quite get the tones right to study in China, but I figured learning the techniques there would be the next best thing. You don’t remember me, do you Dr. Tilton?”
Peter was engulfed by a chill: former students with guns always did that to him. “I apologize,” Peter said. “What course did you take?”
“Don’t worry about it. I took a night class from you. There must have 50 other people in there and I didn’t speak up much.”
“I hope it went well,” Peter said nervously.
“It was wonderful. I took one on Japanese literature, but hated the stuff. I don’t get all the fascination with Japanese culture—it seems so overwrought to me. You know, it was your class that turned me on to the world across the Pacific, it’s why I took up Chinese medicine. And another thing…” he continued but the words of import in Peter’s mind had already been uttered. Now, it was just pleasant song that sprung from this young man. The relief gave way to excited thoughts of the evening. Peter was going to Hillsboro.
Before arriving in Hillsboro, Peter turned off the interstate and found a small isolated spot in the woods to see if his shotgun still worked. After looking around and waiting for a while to see if anyone came, he raised it to his shoulder. The shotgun was heavy in his arms. Peter aimed at an oak and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The trigger was stuck. He tried again, but still no luck. Peter’s faced warmed in the afternoon sun as his mind raced for a solution. Now what am I going to say to the posse? Maybe that student can help me out. Damn. What was his name? After ten minutes of imagining solutions and careful conversations, Peter realized the safety was on. He clicked it off and tried again. The kick almost knocked him down and left a swelling red knot by his collar bone. But he didn’t notice. The warm gun and promise of the afternoon couldn’t be dampened. He went to his old, gray Chrysler and got in, mumbling, “Hillsboro, Hillsboro here I come. Never thought I’d look forward to you, sweet Hillsboro, I’m a comin’.”
Several dozen people had already gathered in the parking lot. Some were serious, some cheery. There was much metal gleaming in the sun as people chatted and compared weapons. When four o’clock rolled around, Peter’s student stood up and took a head count. There were plenty of pickups.
A short, grim-faced woman with a John Deere hat pulled low enough to conceal her eyes announced the drivers and the routes. Peter tried to catch his student’s eye, but failed. After the speech was over, he walked over to the massage therapist and said, “Thank you for doing this. I think I’ll sleep a little better tonight.”
“No problem at all, Professor.”
“Any suggestions for which pickup to ride in?”
“You’re riding in mine, if that’s ok with you.”
“I’d be delighted.”
“Hop in. It’s almost full but there’s room.” Peter walked around to the back of the pickup, and started to climb in. The shotgun was heavy and he couldn’t quite get up by himself. Then a knotted hand grabbed his wrist and helped him struggle aboard.
“Thanks a…” Peter started to say and stopped.
“You’re wel….” a familiar voice stammered.
Peter and Harold stared at each other, both wondering how the other came to be in the back of the pickup. Their lips moved a bit as they frantically rehearsed what they would say next. No words emerged. Peter settled in the seat next to Harold and glanced at his colleague’s shotgun. Peter had no idea, but he was sure the weapon was well worn. I bet he knows what he’s doing. Damn. A similar thought ran through Harold’s mind as he glanced at Peter’s old gun. The pickup lurched forward and they left the parking lot, heading up a street along the edge of a cemetery. As they fondled their weapons, warming the steel, Harold and Peter locked eyes for a moment. Faint smiles came to their faces as they realized the possibilities of the evening.