Tuesday, 23 March 2010
CHOCOHOLIC SQUIRREL By Emily Fink
‘Chocoholic squirrel steals treats from shop’ read the headline. It seemed a ridiculous waste of space to Amy, a story about a thieving squirrel, but upon skimming the article she found it was ironically about a stout man breaking into a candy store. He’d been caught on tape shoving candy into his cheeks like his rodent namesake. She dropped the newspaper to land on the floor beside her cozy leather chair and glanced at the clock above the fireplace. She hoped traffic would give her a few more minutes, but she wasn’t that lucky. The doorbell rang, announcing that Aunt Charlotte had arrived for her annual gossip gathering expedition.
“Aunt Charlotte, I’m so glad to see you!” It wasn’t a complete lie.
“Amoura, my dear, it has been too long. Oh my, what is that?”
I’ve gone by Amy since I was six. Amy followed her eyes toward the planter under the doorbell to where sat a gray stuffed animal squirrel. “I wonder if the neighbor’s kids left it here by accident.” Amy picked it up, intending to return the rodent. “Ugh,” she exclaimed while examining her fingers. “It’s covered in chocolate. I better just throw it away.”
“Wait, there’s a note stuck to its behind. What does it say?”
“It says ‘The Squirrel is where he belongs.’” Amy flipped it over and said with a puzzled shrug, “That’s it.”
“That’s it? Well then, would you mind helping me with my things.” It wasn’t a question, and Aunt Charlotte already was entering with her handbag, but Amy wasn’t listening. “Amoura, really.”
“Oh, pardon me, Aunt Charlotte, but…it’s just,” she stammered. She walked back to her big chair and picked up the paper. “I think it’s about Reece. He never came home last night.”
She didn’t think it was strange that he hadn’t called; he rarely called to tell her he’d be late. She hadn’t started to worry until she woke up and saw that he hadn’t come home. No one had slept in his side of the bed. There were no clothes forgotten on the floor; he hadn’t even come home long enough to change. Should she call the police?
Aunt Charlotte skimmed the article. “I’m sure some people will think this actually is about a squirrel. His name never even is mentioned.” Aunt Charlotte’s high-pitched laughter was no comfort.
“Oh, Aunt Charlotte,” she cried. “I pushed him far too hard.”
“Amoura, don’t worry so. It won’t do you or those dreadful wrinkles any good.”
Wrinkles? “I just can’t believe-”
“I know, this big house must be awfully lonely without Reece around.”
“If I hadn’t put him on that silly diet, my clever-squirrel-of-a-husband wouldn’t have managed to disappear, or to have gotten lost, or somehow to have gone missing.”
“Stupid, tightwad raccoons,” Reece chattered. He looked around and then down, considering his narrow options. He vaguely remembered being hit upside the head and then being forced to write a note, but he had no recollection of how he had gotten up into the tree.
Why did Amy have to nag him so relentlessly? So he was busy and out of shape, big deal. She’d been emotional lately, complaining about being neglected in that gorgeous dream house she’d always wanted. He had no idea what more he could give her.
Did they have to steal my silky Swiss chocolates? He knew he shouldn’t have made a sugar stop on the way home, but he didn’t think the consequences of breaking into a sweet shop would include being trapped in a tree in an unknown forest. No, he thought. This wasn’t punishment for his impulse to hoard, but for meddling where he wasn’t wanted. But they hired me to reorganize their company.
“Now that you’re…settled in, would you like some hot chocolate?” Amy asked, heading toward the kitchen.
“No thank you, dear. It just wouldn’t do for my waistline. Oh, dear, you look positively exhausted. You go upstairs for a nap – I can take care of myself for a bit. I’ve been meaning to finish my knitting.”
“I’m feeling okay.”
“I insist.” Aunt Charlotte rose and began to edge Amy toward the staircase.
“Okay, but if you need anything, don’t hesitate to come get me.”
Amy climbed, passed four useless rooms, and turned into the third on the left. She eased into the king-size bed and tried to relax. After twenty restless minutes, she sat up and looked around the room for something to occupy her. If I go back down now, she’ll surely fuss that I need more rest. The closet. It could use reorganizing.
She opened the double-door walk-in and scanned it from top to bottom. Her neglected evening gowns mingled with his dusty jeans. He hadn’t worn them since, well, all he wore lately were suits to work and sweats around the house. Around the house, ha! He’d have to be home for that.
She decided the best plan of attack would be to start by emptying the whole thing, and then putting it back in order. Out came the gowns, the jeans, and other pieces of their old, forgotten wardrobe. And, oh my, she had forgotten about those.
They had spent a Friday night designing and an entire Saturday afternoon constructing those silly costumes. She was a fair maiden, locked in the dungeon by an evil warlord. Her dress was made of crisscrossed strips that barely covered her bosom and met to flow out in a tattered miniskirt, and the dungeon was a sheer canopy closed around the bed. Reece was a brave warrior who had burst through the door in his leather briefs and cape and had worked his way to her, armed only with his sword.
After putting the dungeon to good use, they’d lain there together and cuddled for hours. He’d cradled her face in his hands and declared his undying love. They kissed and caressed each other while whispering of dreams and happiness. She felt her heart begin to melt like forgotten ice cream and quickly tried to throw it back in the freezer.
The temperature dropped after the sun set. He was hungry, his angry stomach screaming for steak, chicken, even those stupid salads his wife had been forcing him to eat. She must be a rabbit.
He wondered what she was having for dinner. Had she even noticed he was gone?
For lack of other options, he began calculating. Is it too early to retire? I need out of this business. Never before had he had any problems; in fact, companies usually appreciated how efficient they became after his reorganizing.
Funny, he thought, how such a useless man could make anything efficient.
He’d thought this client sounded fishy, if not outright crooked. Despite his misgivings, he’d been pressured by the higher-ups. Those raccoons would take on any client if their pockets were deep enough. If he’d stood up to them, he wouldn’t have discovered their corrupt methods.
When did things go wrong? He couldn’t remember a specific date or event, just that neither he nor his wife had been happy in far too long. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d made her happy; his picture of her face lit up by her genuine smile was fading. He knew he hadn’t done the little things, like planting surprises for her and telling her how wonderful she was, but he thought the house was a big enough statement. Lately, he was wrong about everything.
It was a long way down, but it was his only choice. He closed his eyes and said a quick prayer, promising that if he could get home safely, he would be the man he knew his wife wanted him to be. He wanted to bring her smile back.
She finished the closet, and, having no other meaningless tasks, went back downstairs.
“I was getting ready to come to check on you, dear.”
“I’m fine Aunt Charlotte, really. Hmm, have you seen any cake mix?”
“Yes, chocolate. It’s on the top shelf.”
Amy retrieved the mix and began combining ingredients. Though not homemade, she hoped it would make Reece happy to be home, with her. I shouldn’t have been so hard on him.
“Amoura, are you going to get the…oh never mind.” Aunt Charlotte left the room to answer the door. “She’s sitting at the table,” Amy half heard her say.
She looked so beautiful sitting there. Reece didn’t want to interrupt her; she was so deep into her thoughts. Was it his imagination, or were the teeny corners of her lips bent upwards slightly?
“I’m sorry, Amy” he said, peeking around the corner. “I’m so sorry.”
He was next to her; she wished he would try to sneak his arms around her. She would let him.
“I’ve been a schmuck, but I want to change. I want to be the man you fell in love with, the man you married, the man you deserve.”
“Look at you! What happened? Who did this to you?”
He stood still, about a foot away. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and spend the night making up for the years of inadequate passion, but he couldn’t read her well enough to predict her reaction. He hoped it wasn’t too late for him to try, but after the day he’d had he wasn’t in the mood to risk being slapped.
“I think it had something to do with that company I’ve been working with, but I can’t be sure. I know they were pissed about being reorganized – you know how those old guys are. It would cost them more to do things right.”
“Someone you were working with did this to you?”
He reached out, wanting to hold her. “We can sort everything out tomorrow.”
She wished he’d pull her in and embrace her; she’d missed feeling his heat, listening to his heartbeat. She heard him inhale, and she knew he’d smell it.
“I baked you a cake, you know, just in case. It should be ready right about now.” Right on cue, off went the timer. She pushed back her chair.
“I’ll get it, dear.”
“Thanks, Aunt Charlotte.”
“So, hun,” - he hesitated - “do you think those costumes still fit?”
Reece awoke before his alarm the next morning, turning it off so it wouldn’t wake Amy. She was smiling gently, a glow even more beautiful than when she embraced him the previous night. He dressed silently, his clothes hanging in the closet already coordinated so he didn’t have to guess what matched. Amy, he thought, turning for another look before he left. Whatever had made her stay with him despite his shortcomings, he was going to deserve her, starting today.
He closed the door behind him. Approaching the stairs, Reece turned and scampered back to kiss Amy’s cheek. “I love you,” he whispered.
She smiled, eyes still closed. “Love you.” She lifted her head an inch off the pillow, so Reece bent over and kissed her sweet lips.
He heard the rocking chair creaking before he saw Aunt Charlotte, busy knitting something small and light pink.
“Shall we expect you for dinner this evening?” she asked.
“Yes. I have a few loose ends to wrap up, but I hope to be home early.”
Was she knitting booties? he wondered, backing out of the driveway. They weren’t expecting. Probably another one of her polite ways to recommend they start trying.
He merged onto the highway. He thought he heard a popping sound but couldn’t locate its origin. Maybe they were ready now. It might be nice to have little pink booties crawling across the floor.
He definitely heard a crackle, on the right side somewhere. No, it was on the left. No matter what his boss said, Reece was done working with this client. It was time to put his wife first, maybe even start a family.
The sound grew in volume, the snaps more frequent. Reece merged into the right lane, but he never made it to his exit. The glass of his windshield fractured, collapsing into the car. Shards struck Reese in the eye, the forehead, and the throat before the sound of shattering reached his ears.
Emily Fink is a recent graduate of the Ohio State University. She loves to read, write, and hibernate all winter. She currently is in the revision process on her first novel, a mystery.