Squirrels Can be Just as Scary by Tyler Fleser

Tyler Fleser is a creative writer and GVSU student. Exploring both fiction and nonfiction, at times blurring the line between the two, some of Tyler’s best work takes the form of unassuming slice-of-life works that start off like a smooth Sunday drive and end with an emotional gut-punch.

In the snow bright from the setting sun, Scarlet saw a tiny red mitten that had turned the color of blood. It did not have a partner and, if it did, it was nowhere to be seen. Its other half was probably somewhere scattered around the small town of Mercy. It could have been hanging somewhere in Mercy Elementary’s playground. It could have been caught in the doorway of the drug store where packs of children went to buy candy with their allowances, and functioning alcoholics went to spend their family’s income. Or maybe the mitten’s partner was under a table in the middle school’s cafeteria, where Madison Winshine had told Scarlet there was a bear in the woods behind Mercy Elementary.

Pools of rain had gathered a week before, and now there lay ice with cracks from those who had slipped and caught themselves—more likely, from those that failed to. If the children that would be back tomorrow morning were anything like Scarlet was when she was a child, they would run rampant across the playground and bury each other in tiny embraces atop mountains of snow where their peers would burrow tunnels as deep as their bodies could reach. She remembered being that small: how she had played with boys, and how people had not presumed anything. But she wasn’t that small anymore. Now she was thirteen.

Scarlet sat on the picnic table kids used to play Yu-Gi-Oh on when she went to Mercy Elementary. It was rusted. The paint from her childhood was gone, chipped away by time.

She put a cigarette in her mouth, trying to remember how people did it in movies. She lit it with a lighter that had a pin-up model on it, similar to the one on the side of the World War II bomber in her textbook. She had taken the cigarette from the dashboard of her father’s 94’ Lumina: a mess of stained fabric, tobacco, and old coffee. Smoke swirled in front of the banner that read “2001 Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence in Education.” She remembered them putting it up in third grade. At the time, she had wondered how a town like Mercy could achieve anything. Sometimes, she still wondered that.

She thought about going back home. On Monday, she could apologize to Sam for not drinking whiskey with him, even though it would be his first time. He would understand. He was nice like that. Maybe her cancelling on him would dispel any rumors about the two of them. And it wasn’t like she was going to drink a lot anyway. She had done it before too, and it was only really just okay.

Then again, then she couldn’t dispel the rumors about a bear in the woods. That was absurd. She knew only black bears lived in Michigan. Scarlet’s dad had run into one when he hunted up north, and even those bears aren’t big enough to knock down a tree. Maybe a person though.

If she left, she wouldn’t risk getting caught smoking either. Mom might not care, but when Madison Winshine told her parents about Scarlet drinking beer, and Mrs. Winshine had told Scarlet’s parents, Scarlet found her father on the floor surrounded by beer bottles and cigarettes, asking her to forgive him for ever letting it happen. As though it was his fault Scarlet had drank the beer. Like that’s something parents are supposed to hide. If only Madison had kept her mouth shut….

She could hide the cigarette in one of the trash cans scattered around the playground. No one would find it in there, and if they did, how would they know who it was? Maybe she could throw it on the other side of the fence that surrounded the elementary school. It’s not like they could track her footprints, and, even if they could, she wore men’s shoes.

But Sam arrived just as Scarlet was stomping out her dad’s cigarette, leaving a checkered footprint in the snow.

“Hey.” she said.

“Hey!” Sam’s voice was the same pitch as Scarlet’s, but more excited. In health class, they said that boys voices didn’t get deeper until high school. Sam was no exception, his voice not yet hardened to Mercy’s signature, blue-collar gruffness.

“Do you have it?” Scarlet asked. Most girls’ voices didn’t get deeper until high school either, but Scarlet’s parents had opted to start her in kindergarten a year late.  And that way, she’d be the smartest one in class, or at least that’s what Scarlet’s mom said.

“Yeah Tom had some in his room. Mom was cleaning it today, so he should really thank me. Last time he got caught with some they grounded him, and made him take the bus. He couldn’t bring his girlfriend to school for a whole month.” Sam grimaced when he sat on the icy bench, a full brown paper bag shaking in his hand. “It’s freezing!”

Scarlet could barely hear him over the sounds of cars driving in front of the elementary school: people getting home from working out at the gym that never got cleaned, or from drinking at the bowling alley connected to the grocery store.

Last time her dad had drank too much, she had sat in the waiting room. The weatherman on the television set had said that you can tell it’s extra cold, not just the wind chill, if the snow has a high pitch when you step in it. If the sound of rubber tires packing the snow into the road that separated the drug store from Mercy Elementary was any indication, Channel 13 news was right.

Sam was shaking more than Scarlet was. He was wearing the same wool petticoat she wished she hadn’t mentioned liking to Madison Winshine last year in the hallway at school, back when they were friends. The next day, Scarlet and Sam may as well of exchanged wedding vows, for all the other kids knew. She really only wanted one like it for herself. It even made Sam look smart. At least, smarter than anyone else in town—besides Scarlet that is. If you asked her mom.

“Why didn’t bring your own?” Sam asked. “You were able to get a cigarette.”

“I couldn’t find anything that easy and Dad’s trying to sober up again. He’s actually made it a whole week.”

“Oh.” Sam stared at the brown bag crinkled in the shape of a bottle, as though it would give him the right words. Scarlet knew there were none.

She flipped open her phone. Her mom had texted her. Hope your having fun with ur “friend.” She stuffed back, deep into her dad’s coat’s chest pocket, rolling her eyes even though her mom was not there to see them roll.

That was the one benefit of being tall, she got to wear her dad’s old work coat. It was probably warmer than a petticoat—definitely warmer than any of the long poofy ones her mom had bought for her at the outlet mall fifteen minutes away from town.

“This is supposed to warm you up right? How’s it supposed to do that when the bottle is so cold?” Scarlet had told him that booze would make him warmer. She hadn’t told him that it makes you more brave. Brave enough to go after a make-believe bear, even.

“Trust me, last time I had some, I had to open my window up to sleep. You’ll forget you’re cold in a few minutes. Trust me.” It had been one of the parties where all the adults got drunk and acted like the other kids in her class, all the kids except for Sam that is. It had been the party where her mom had whispered loudly to her friends, no I’ve asked if she likes girls, not that that’d be a problem or anything.

Sam shrugged as brown liquor dripped down his pointed chin, dotted with exactly two pimples that Scarlet had not ever noticed because, when they would talk to each other in the hallways or during lunch, she was too busy thinking about whether they would take turns playing Crash Bandicoot over the weekend, or maybe go see a movie. The pimples almost looked like two more freckles. Either way, Scarlet didn’t think they made Sam ugly or anything.

“Ew it tastes like cinnamon!”

Scarlet laughed.

“Wow, you’re right though. It is warm.” Sam laughed too.

Of course Scarlet knew that it was not just the cinnamon, that alcohol burns your throat before it heats up your belly and your thoughts get fuzzy.

“So Madison said there was a bear in the woods? And that it knocked down a tree?”

Scarlet guffawed. “That’s what Madison said, yeah” Madison had also told the story about the beat-up house at the four corners, across from the gas station and the sheriff’s office. The only real reason the house was still there was for the firefighters to practice in. Scarlet’s mom had said they might make it into a gazebo eventually, after the township installed a traffic light at the intersection.  Won’t that be nice? her mom had said. She thought about asking Madison if the gazebo would inherit the ghosts.

“But what if it’s real? What if there is a bear? We could just finish this here and go back to your house. Your parents don’t care right?” Sam hiccuped in the direction of the woods, out past the playground and the soccer field. “Why should we risk getting hurt? Or eaten!”

“Well if what she said is true it’s only hurt a tree so far.”

“I like trees!” Sam was shivering, but Scarlet knew it was not from the cold. He swallowed his last sip hard and did not look at her for three more.

She thought about saying sorry and going back to her house like they normally would have, until Sam, in his drunken stupor, renewed with spontaneous energy that made as much logical sense as most boys did, jumped to his feet, said “well if there aren’t any bears,” barreled straight for the chain link fence that separated the snow-buried soccer field from the wall of trees beyond it, and shouted, “Bet I can beat you!”

Scarlet kept him under the illusion that he could beat her, let it serve as her apology. It wasn’t like he was slow or anything, her legs were just longer than his.

She crunched her way through the fresh blanket of snow that glowed from whatever light overcast twilight would allow. She remembered playing in this soccer field. Well, at either end of it. She had been the best goalie.

Sam looked back with excited eyes and a smile Scarlet thought some people might describe as “cute.” Maybe.

Sticking out of the snow, just past the sign that said “Mercy Elementary Nature Trail: Adult Supervision Required,” were frozen wooden planks that looked like they had been ripped out of a staircase leading to a basement full of cryptic books and dusty pictures. Like the ones in horror movies her dad had let her watch with him last Halloween, the same horror movies that Sam asked Scarlet to never make him watch again, but, not because he was scared or anything.

Scarlet felt her phone vibrate in her pocket and pulled it out. Hun are u coming home soon? Am I interrupting ur date? Mom again.

“I told you I’d beat you!” Sam announced. He tried to climb over the fence, but the ground wasn’t very welcoming.

“Jeez, are you okay?”

“Yeah, snow broke my fall.” When Sam stood up, he left an awkward snow angel.

“Dork.”

They meandered through the woods and the snow’s dim light grew distant. The sounds of the late winter wind blowing through the forest was their only companion.

At one point they both opened their mouths and uttered something. Scarlet told Sam to go first but Sam was adamant that “ladies go first.” She wondered who had invented that stupid rule. What if she didn’t want to go first? Even then, wouldn’t she be the first in harm’s way anyway?

Bare tree branches hung like her dad’s arms and legs did when he passed out on the couch. A forest like this at night would scare most kids.

“Are you sure you want to stay here?” Sam was like most kids. But only sometimes.

There were footprints in the snow ahead of them—not human kinds though. Some tiny, some big, some with three talons, others like paw prints. Some led to trees and some just disappeared.

“You’re sure Madison was lying? Like, there aren’t any bears. Right?” Sam asked.

“They’re just normal animals Sam. Nothing big enough to hurt a person, or a tree. Probably birds, coyotes, maybe even squirrels—”

“But don’t squirrels hibernate? Like bears?”

Scarlet was impressed that Sam knew about hibernation. “Yeah, so?”

Sam stooped over, almost tripping over his own footprints. “These ones do sorta look like dog prints.”

Scarlet and Sam trekked deeper into the woods, and the wind beat the trees, the ones yet to be knocked over, Scarlet thought. She imagined some branches close together, pursed like lips about to kiss. For the first time, she shivered.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket. Probably her mom again.

“Man I could go for some water right now.”

“Told you it would warm you up.”

“Like, I’m literally sweating. Do you have any water?”

“Just eat some snow.” When she looked back, she saw Sam, stroking his two chin hairs with an eyebrow raised. Then he scooped up a snowball in his hands and took a bite. “I was kidding you know,” and a smile worked its way through Scarlet’s cringe. Sam shrugged, took another handful of snow in his gloves, and shoved it in his mouth.

He hiccupped and Scarlet laughed, until they came across broken glass bottles and circles of stone that looked like ritual pyres. Scarlet knew they were probably just old fire pits. Nothing to worry about. No one hurt other people in Mercy, or, at least, people don’t mean to hurt people.

The scariest thing she had ever seen in this town was her mom last summer. She had been a shade of orange the overcast skies didn’t naturally allow. An orange monster scarier than any bear.

“Is this it?” Sam asked. There was a tree on its side, its base uprooted, and in its wet bark, a gash like a wound. Sam knew it was probably just lightning. She had read that lightning leaves marks like that in a book one time.

“Woah, it’s like a pond!” Sam rushed over to the pool of ice where roots had once grown, and where rain had gathered. The tree’s roots, even in death, clung to the soil in a wall of tundra. It was the same soil that had, at one point, nourished them. Trees must be sentimental, Scarlet thought, to cling onto the soil. Her parents were sentimental too, keeping the pictures of her in dresses they had bought even though Scarlet had never asked for them. Her phone vibrated some more. Her mom was calling now, and she probably would keep calling until Scarlet picked up.

“Man I wish I would’ve brought my skates.” Sam shouted. He stumbled grabbing at Scarlet to stop his fall, knocking the phone, still vibrating, out of her hand.

“My phone!”

“Don’t worry! I’ll help you find it!” Sam fell down, on purpose this time, and together they searched. The woods around Scarlet seemed darker when she was on her knees. She thought about what beady squirrel eyes might look like, staring out of holes in dead trees.

Scarlet dug in the snow with her bare hands but found nothing but dead leaves and twigs, and gathered them in a mound beside the tree pond—a little mound of dead things next to an ancient corpse of oak and frozen rot. Scarlet wished she had picked up that red mitten.  It would have done its job fine, even without its partner. She only needed one hand to find it. When she could not feel her hands anymore she stood up, rubbing them together to no avail.

“Take mine.” Sam held his gloves out to Scarlet. She took them but never put them on.

“It’s fine. It’s just a phone.” and they both leaned against the dead tree, sipping out of what was left of the brown bag Sam had, miraculously, never dropped.

Once they reached the end of the bottle, Sam asked, “Is it okay if I kiss you now?”

Scarlet could picture the squirrels staring at her with yellow eyes. Maybe the sound of the wind howling earlier was not just coyotes. Maybe they were wolves. She thought about running, before wolves or killer squirrels could circle them. Or before her mom came. She was always worrying and telling her she should be more careful. How boys won’t like her if she doesn’t wear more makeup. There were wolves somewhere nearby. She remembered her dad telling her about how he had hunted some once. Maybe it didn’t matter if Madison was wrong. Maybe even enough squirrels could take down a tree. Maybe enough squirrels could take down a person—a kid—if they did it together.

“I guess you were right. Madison’s a liar. There weren’t any bears.” Sam said. It was the first time anyone had made a noise since they left tree, since they left the woods where she had never actually seen a squirrel. “What are you going to tell them happened to the phone when you get back?” Scarlet wondered if she would have been able to taste the cinnamon on Sam’s lips.

“I’ll tell them what happened. I dropped it in the snow.” Snowflakes seemed to melt when they touched Sam’s face, his freckle pimples hidden behind red cheeks.

They walked back across the soccer field, back across the playground, and back to school across the street from the drug store. Sam pointed to the red mitten by the picnic table. “How long you think that’s been there for anyway? Think that kid will ever find the other one?”

“No I don’t think so.”

“Isn’t that kind of sad?” Sam asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

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