by Michelle Reale
We’d become used the scratching sound of squirrels running up the side of our house, but what they found there was a mystery to us. Stuck in stucco, I murmured in an ominous voice, like a warning, or a prayer. I said it loud, going for the laugh because it sounded funny on my tongue. We are not amused, my mother said. My father’s head swiveled toward her, sharp. No, we are not, he added, narrowing his eyes. My brother touched my shoulder as if the squirrel’s misfortune were an experience we could share. I shook him off. The tips of his fingers felt hot. I felt the burn through my T-shirt. He shot a sideways glance at my mother, and then looked away, clicking his tongue like he always did when he was nervous. He kicked some dirt in my direction, which might have meant that he was sorry, since he knows I don’t like to be touched. All the while, the squirrel looked frozen in time and space—arms and legs splayed as though it had suction cups on its tiny paws. It was holding on for its life. Its eyes were fixed and shiny, moving neither right nor left. I felt that it might have come to us for a reason. I looked down the driveway for a stick, thinking I’d help it along by giving it a good poke. But the driveway was filled only with gravel—a dead giveaway, I’d heard my mother shout at my father one night, but I didn’t know what she meant. Weeds poked through here and there. How they grew between so much stone I had no idea. My brother’s sports equipment lay scattered around, abandoned for whatever else might hold his shifting attention. Poor fella, my mother whispered, her head tilted to the side, an unlit cigarette in her fingers. We sagged under the harsh sun. My father stood silent, his fists curled and twitching at his side. A baseball spun through the air. The sudden movement made me dizzy, but only for a second. I heard what sounded like the cry of a baby submerged under water, and saw the rapid rise of the squirrel’s tummy on the ground. Blood speckled gravel in a strange configuration. My father, not ordinarily a violent man, said he had waited long enough, Thing needed to be put out of its misery. My brother ran with his hands covering his ears, the navy-blue stripes of his shirt a wavy blur. I crouched to look closer while blood continued to trickle, but the squirrel’s quick breaths had stopped. My mother lit her cigarette, took a deep drag, and looked old, You’ll need to confess that, I believe. Her voice scared me, but my father laughed and said, I need to do a lot of things. He walked away, shaking his head.