Pam McGaffin lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Mark Funk, and sons, Casey and Charlie. In 2011, after more than twenty-five years in journalism and public relations, she took a leap of faith to concentrate on fiction and write a novel. Her first published short story appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Eclectica magazine.
While watching the storm on TV, Maggie realizes that it was around this time Thursday that her daughter, Jen, hung up on her. Here it's been two days and she still hasn't called to apologize. Maggie had started to tell her about the squirrels when Jen cut her off. "Gotta go." Click. Just like that. Jen obviously doesn't care about her problems and this God-awful house and now the squirrels, scratching and digging with their little rat feet, so loud they sound like they're not in Maggie's attic at all, but inside her head.
She can hear them now, over her living room ceiling, running back and forth, back and forth, as if they too are panicked by this storm that has the TV weathermen clucking like Chicken Little. Fifty-mile-per-hour gusts, they said on the news.
The phone rings. About time! Maggie grips the sides of her chair, noticing that the tea towels she sewed on the arms to cover the bare patches are themselves wearing thin. She hauls herself out of her seat and walks slowly to the telephone. She won't say anything about the hang-up. She'll wait for Jen to mention it and say she's sorry. Damn her knees! That's another thing, Jen knows how much it pains her to get up and down. If she's going to take the trouble to go to the phone and call her daughter, she'd like the conversation to last longer than a few minutes. She picks up the receiver on the fifth ring. "Hello?"
It's not Jen. It's a man, or rather the recording of a man, informing her that she's won two free nights at a ski resort. Maggie hangs up as he's about to explain how she can claim her prize. Seems like the only people who call want something from her. Solicitors, charities, and scams like this one, all pretending to be her friend, some even presumptuous enough to address her as Margaret. The telephone companies are the worst, calling every other minute to peddle wireless service and something called "broadband." As if she had money to spend on such things with her house falling down around her.
She remembers when they bought the rambler in fifty-six. Firm and white as a new brassiere. Now it looks forlorn and rotten, its elastic shot. She used to make a stab at appearances, had the trim painted once or twice, planted geraniums, but the house started going to pot after Bernie died. A heart attack at forty. Her luck. Why'd she have to be the one stuck living? She asked Jen that once, and her daughter just shrugged and said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." But she doesn't feel very strong.
The storm is moving north. On TV, they show a tree through someone's roof, waves spraying cars on the floating bridge, a young woman at a shopping center trying to tie down a giant, inflated cell phone. Serve them right if that balloon phone were to fly off in the wind. For all the times they've pestered her! As if a 75-year-old woman would need a cell phone.
Did the lights just flicker, or did she imagine it? She imagines things sometimes. She could call Jen, see if her lights flickered too. But she doesn't want to be the one to call. Of course, if Jen is without power, perhaps she can't call. Do power outages affect the phone lines? She can't remember. If Jen can't call, that would certainly explain why she hasn't.
"No, my phone is working fine," her daughter says, sounding out of breath. "I just walked in the door. It's ugly out there."
In the background, Maggie can hear one of her grandsons yell and the creaky suction of the refrigerator door opening. She pictures Jen in her yellow kitchen with her coat still on, bending down to get a snack for the boys. She hears the refrigerator door close with a cushioned bang and some rustling, her daughter adjusting the receiver on her shoulder. Then a quiet pause.
She waits for the contrite beginning of an apology, but Jen simply asks her how she's doing as if nothing happened.
"I'm a little miffed at you."
"You hung up on me."
"The last time I called. You cut me off just as I was going to tell you something."
"Well, if I did, I'm sorry. What were you going to tell me?"
"I don't know if I want to tell you now."
Jen sighs. "Suit yourself."
And with that, Maggie begins to cry. She can't help herself. Her husband is dead. Her daughter can't be bothered. And her house has been taken over by vermin. "The squirrels . . . are back," she says, gulping the words. "Sometimes . . . I think . . . there's no point to life."
To her ears, she sounds pathetic, like a puppy whimpering. When her daughter speaks, it's as if her voice is coming down a deep hole. She can barely hear it. Something about a handyman.
"I gave you the name of that handyman." Her daughter raises her voice to be heard over Maggie's tears, which, over the years, she has grown used to. "Did you call?"
She didn't call. She'd meant to, but the scratching stopped last summer. After several months with no noise, she thought the squirrels had left. She thought she'd gotten lucky. Then, with the first frost, the little rat feet returned.
"You didn't call, did you?"
"I don't have a lot of money, Jen."
"But you could at least call, find out how much it will cost."
"What if they don't get all the holes?"
"What if they do?" Jen sounds annoyed.
"I've tried to get rid of them."
"What. Banging on the ceiling?"
"Yeah." She sniffs. "God, I hate this weather."
"Mom!" Jen yells as if trying to shake her awake. "I can't help you if you don't help yourself."
Maggie doesn't know what to say. She never knows what to say when Jen gets like this. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have bothered you."
"You're not bothering me." In the background, she hears one of the boys shriek, setting off a round of screaming. "Guys!" Jen yells away from the receiver, then to Maggie, "Can I call you back?"
"Will you call me back tonight?"
"Yes, I will. I promise."
Maggie hangs up. She takes a wadded-up tissue out of the sleeve of her sweater and wipes her eyes. Jen won't call back, not tonight anyway.
Another blink. This time she's sure it's the lights. The wind must be kicking up, or maybe the squirrels have finally chewed through an electrical wire. This house would go up like a matchbox, taking her and the rodents with it. Maybe then her daughter would show some sympathy.
Rain hard as scattershot pounds her windows. Outside, a dull thud, something blown over, a garbage can. She grabs a plastic grocery sack and checks the newspapers she uses to soak up leaks on her three south-facing windows. Rain streams down the glass of her bedroom window, which smells of lead and rot. She picks up the soaked newspaper pad and drops it into the sack. Water has already started to puddle on the sill. She should have gotten to this sooner. After throwing the bag with the wet papers away, she makes the rounds with fresh newspapers, folded into sections. She knows she's not fixing the problem, but the act of replacing wet with dry always makes her feel better. After she's done, she rewards herself by turning on the TV, the one creature comfort she couldn't do without even though she gets only four channels. "Dancing with the Stars" is on, a show she enjoys, but tonight she resents the pliable, young bodies doing the Rumba. Leaning back in her chair, she stares at the jagged line of duct tape covering a crack in her popcorn ceiling. The squirrels are probably up there now, preparing the nursery. She knows where they nest because the ceiling is slightly bowed at that spot. Jen keeps telling her to get the thing fixed. "You don't want squirrel nests falling on you, do you?" she says. Maggie imagines pink, hairless squirrel babies hitting the floor in blind surprise.
No babies up there now. Wrong time of year. Staring at the bulge in the ceiling, she notices a pucker in the tape where it has pulled loose. Instinctively, she reaches for the roll of duct tape she keeps in the drawer of her coffee table. Her knees crack as she stands up to get the fold-up stepping stool. Jen got it for her last Christmas after she broke her wrist falling off a chair trying to do this very thing.
Grasping the handrails, she climbs to the top step, trying to ignore the pain in her knees. She wobbles a bit until she finds her balance. Now the squirrels are just inches above her head. She can hear them, little nails on sandpaper. Can't they hear her? Damn things aren't even afraid. She tears a strip of duct tape from the roll and reaches for the ceiling, then stops. She doesn't want to put up any more tape. She wants to take it down, all of it. She wads the sticky silver strip into a ball, and, with her other hand, pulls the loose tape from the ceiling. The whole mess could come crashing down on top of her, burying her in popcorn, plaster, and God knows what else. At the very least, she'll have a mess to clean up, but that doesn't concern her now. She's thrilled by her impulsiveness, the potential for disaster. She'll finally see what's making all the noise.
The tape comes off easily, taking bits of white popcorn with it. She rips off layer after layer, arm aching from holding it up so long. Finally there's nothing left but a gaping crack revealing dry brown stuff. Leaves. She could tape it up again, let the squirrels be until she can get that handyman Jen recommended. She can see the look of horror on her daughter's face. "Mom, what the hell are you doing?" A few loose leaves fall to the floor. Music, full and sweet, floats from the TV. Maggie sucks in her breath and reaches into the gap. The nest is surprisingly dense. More leaves flutter down, then a big, matted chunk and something small and gray. Alive. She recoils, feels the room tilt. She's falling. Her tailbone slams the carpet. Her head rocks back, banging the end table.
She lies on the floor like an upside-down beetle, bottom-heavy, legs kicking the air. Oh God, she did it again! She broke something. And now she won't be able to get up. A hot panic shoots pins through her body. Her heart beats so wildly that she fears it will explode like a popped balloon into ragged red pieces. Is this what Bernie felt when he clutched his chest and collapsed to the floor? Calm down, she tells herself. Breathe in. Breathe out. She's not having a heart attack.
If she could just roll onto her side, maybe she could prop herself up with her arms. The last time she fell, she had a devil of a time righting herself. Her whole right arm throbbed with pain and looked oddly misshapen, as if a child had crafted it out of clay. She wore a cast for three months and then had to endure three more months of physical therapy. She doesn't want to go through that again. The wrist looks okay. Tentatively, she bends it and wiggles her fingers. Seems whole, as does everything else. Maybe her bones are stronger than she thought. Slowly she pushes her way into a sit. Then, using the stool, she pulls herself up the rest of the way. The rust colored carpet is littered with wadded duct tape, ceiling pieces, and chunks of matted leaves, but the squirrel is gone.
There was just one, not the several that she thought. And now it's loose in her house. It could attack, go for her throat. She climbs the stool again, catching her reflection in the living room window—a white-haired old woman, stooped and ghostly, like something out of Dickens. For a second, the applause coming from the TV seems directed at her. She could star in her own horror film. Perhaps a remake of Hitchcock's "The Birds," but this time with rodents.
She's heard of squirrels going up people's pants legs, but not actually killing anybody. They do have sharp little teeth. She's seen them skin horse chestnuts in seconds. And they probably get rabies, just like dogs. All it would take is one nip and she could get deathly ill, so ill she wouldn't be able to get up to feed herself or call Jen. And because her daughter never calls her, she wouldn't be found until she's been dead for some time. They'd discover her on the floor, shriveled like one of those shrunken apple-head dolls.
Oh, but she's being ridiculous. The squirrel is probably petrified and chewing nervously on . . . Her antiques! The shaving stand of her grandfather would be worth considerably less with chew marks. She'd like to leave Jen something besides this wreck of a house.
There's only one thing to do. She must hunt the thing down and kill it. She could call Jen and ask her to do it, but her daughter would just get disgusted with her. "What'd you go and do that for?" Jen would say, staring aghast at the hole in the ceiling. No, she can't call her daughter. She can't call anyone.
It's times like these she misses Bernie. Why'd he have to die and leave her with all the things a husband should do? She'd never wanted to be a career girl either, but after his heart attack, she'd had to find a job—Manpower. Funny name for a pool of secretaries. She did office work from nine to five, then had to be Mom the rest of the time. Jen was twelve when Bernie died. So she was left to take her daughter through the teens, from her first period to her first year of college. Of course, the womanhood stuff would have fallen to her anyway, but she could have been more attentive if she hadn't been so worried about money. Fortunately, Jen was an easy child, smart and independent. She got good grades, and it's hard to argue with good grades. (Only later did Maggie find out about the chances her daughter took with boys and beer parties.) Still, Jen turned out okay, and she's proud of that. She did her bit. No one could say she didn't. After all those years being chief cook and bottle washer, who could blame her for wanting to rest and retreat? Her house may be rotting in on itself like an old barn, but it's clean. She doesn't let junk and newspapers pile up, or live with eleven cats in a place that smells like a litter box. She's doing okay for her age, maybe not as well as some, but better than many.
She could ask for Jen's help a lot more than she does. She won't ask for her help with this. If she can still walk to the store and take care of herself, she can kill a squirrel. They're just little creatures with little brains. And she's big, by comparison, with a big brain. Of course, she'll need something to bludgeon it with. A hammer, perhaps. No. her aim isn't that good. There's a shovel in the garage. She could corner the animal, then it would take but two whacks. With the vermin gone, she'll get everything patched up, the holes, the ceiling. She'll call that handyman tomorrow. No more scratching and gnawing. No more worrying. Jen will be so surprised! "You mean you did it yourself?" She can't wait to see the look on her daughter's face.
The garage still smells of oily car parts. Bernie used to love to buy used clunkers and tinker them back to health. She sold the last one years ago, after she stopped driving. Without a car, the garage is practically empty, save a few boxes of keepsakes and Christmas decorations stacked against the inside wall on the part of the floor that stays dry. The shovel is propped up against one corner with her rake and the edge-cutter that doesn't work. The blade still has dirt on it from the last time she dug grass out of the flowerbed. What? Twenty years ago, it must be. She has a neighbor boy do those things now.
Lifting the shovel from its perch, she's mindful of her grim purpose. The tool seems transformed in her hands into something ominous. She lifts the blade high over the stairs so it doesn't bang. It's heavy, heavy enough to smash a head. She's read of shovels used that way, as crude weapons in the heat of the moment. A squirrel's skull is so small and light, it'd probably crack like an egg with no force at all.
By the time she reaches the living room, her arms and legs burn, and her knees ache something terrible. Still, her strength amazes her. Buzzing through her brain is a boldness she associates with past thrills: tobogganing pell-mell down Rucker hill or daring the boys to jump off the Newton Avenue trestle into the green slough below. It's hard to imagine that once wild child was actually her.
She turns off the television so that it's quiet enough to hear a squirrel. A fierce gust of wind rattles the living room windows, and the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum" pops into her head. She imagines the storm and the squirrels as nature's invaders bent on taking over her house. At least they could wait until she's dead before they return her to the earth to begin anew.
A scuffling in the dining room gives her a start. She raises her shovel as she would a rifle in front of her and walks towards it. Her footsteps creak on the floorboards. The scuffling stops. Then she sees it under her grandfather's shaving stand. It isn't chewing on the wood. It's just standing there, frozen, tail up like a shield.
She stomps her foot. The squirrel bolts down the hall and into her bedroom. She follows it there, switches on the light, and closes the door behind her. The pain in her knees won't let her crouch down to see if it's under the bed, but somehow she knows that's where it is. She thrusts the shovel noisily under the bed frame, and sure enough, the squirrel darts out the other side. She watches it run along the wall and into her closet, where it huddles, tail twitching, behind her shoes and old purses. She's got it trapped.
For several seconds, she just watches the animal's gray flanks heave in and out with each breath. She can see now that it's an old squirrel, thin and rangy, like it's been through a few scrapes already. She'll have to grab it first and hold it in place. Be bold. One, two, three. She swoops down into the closet, sees it bolt, and thinks she missed—but her fingers close around bristly fur with a thin, string-like center. Dangling by the tail from her hand, the squirrel squeals in terror. Its small body jerks so violently, it's a wonder it doesn't snap its own spine. The desperate squeals remind her of something, a baby crying, or her own pitiful whimpering on the phone with Jen.
Her stomach flops. She feels slightly sick. Her hand opens and the squirrel drops to the floor with a thud. It runs to the door, does an about-face and runs under the chest of drawers. Maggie leans the shovel against the wall. Stuck to the fingers of her right hand is a tuft of fur, brown and gray, tipped with white. Pretty, really.
Another gust buffets the house. The lights flicker, and this time they go out with an intake of breath, her breath. The house is pitched into darkness so complete it seems to swallow her up. For a while she just stands there, black space pressing in. Now her big brain doesn't matter. The squirrel has the advantage. It's used to living in the dark, living by its wits. Her skin itches in anticipation of it attacking, but common sense tells her it won't hurt her. The fears that started this whole chase now seem childish, like a fear of the dark.
When Jen was little, she was so afraid of the dark that Maggie had to go through a nightly ritual of checking her room. "No monsters here," she'd say, opening the closet. "No monsters here," she'd say, peering under the bed. When it got ridiculous, when Maggie looked in the trash bin and the jewelry box, Jen would laugh. Now Maggie's the one who needs reassurance. In old age, she's become the child, crying for attention and comfort. But Jen already has children. Justin is six and Ryan is three, and they call her Grandma M.
Maybe Jen, at this very moment, is using the monster drill with them as she calms them to sleep. Maggie would like to think she's helped in some way.
Darkness fades. Shapes emerge: her windows, the chest of drawers, the shovel against the wall. She sits down on the edge of her bed. The fur between her fingers is coarse, not soft as she would have expected. She wonders what possible purpose that extravagant tail serves, what aid to survival. Then it occurs to her. The tail is a trick to fool the eyes. That great fluffy plume makes predators think the squirrel is twice as big as it really is.
The room is quiet. Her squirrel must be hiding, afraid to move. She could help it, guide it to freedom. She read somewhere that you're supposed to turn off the lights and open a window. She walks over and turns off the light switch in case the power should come back on. Then she goes to the one window that wasn't painted shut. All that work putting fresh newspapers on her sills and here she is, letting in the rain. A wet blast sprays her sweater as she pushes it open. The room chills. She gets into her bed, her clothes still on, and waits. Her blankets smell of damp and something else. Over-ripe, musty. They smell of her.
Long after she's dead, that smell will cling to her things, enveloping Jen as she works through what to keep and what to give away. Will her daughter be sad or relieved? Jen hasn't had it easy being an only child, shouldering the full burden of Maggie's needs. Heaven knows, she wasn't the perfect mother, but surely Jen can appreciate now that she has two of her own, how hard it is, that Maggie did her best with no husband to help. Of course, she could have remarried, had more children. She'd had her chances. She could have settled for less than love, but that's lonely too.
The scuffling sound she hears is so familiar, she almost pays it no mind. Little rat feet. They pass by her bed, trailing a plume that ripples like a wave. In one bound, the squirrel is on the sill, its tail picking up the silver light from the street lamp outside. The power is back on! She can see the ragged notch in its tail where she pulled the fur out, like a comb with teeth missing. For the longest time, the squirrel just sits on the sill, front feet cupped to its white chest. Then, dropping to all fours, it jumps and is gone.
She climbs out of bed, closes the window against the storm, and starts to get undressed. She's already in her nightgown and straightening out the covers when the telephone rings.
Four rings, five. Such a frantic sound this late at night. Used to be that a call at this hour meant a family crisis, a death. Now it usually means a wrong number. The ringing stops only to begin again seconds later. Her knees throb as she walks to the hall. She reaches for the receiver, knowing exactly what she'll say. She'll tell her daughter about the squirrel and her plans to kill it. She'll say she almost called her over to help, but got the animal out on her own. She'll tell Jen that she had quite the little adventure, but that everything's fine now.