The Squirrels of Summer
Mark sits alone on the curb and scowls at the beautiful homes. He does this almost every morning. He and Emily live in a ramshackle apartment complex that’s surrounded on all sides by uppity houses. Sometimes he brings a bowl of oatmeal to the curb, other times, like today, just his anger. Why is life so unfair? Why do some people get so much? Emily is sympathetic but also weary. There are bigger problems now, she’s always saying.
She’s right, of course. From the curb he can see dozens of hideously yellowed trees. But that’s not exactly a source of calm, either. And people are still grilling! On their walk yesterday Mark counted seven grillers. You can see smoke wisping up from behind the houses, smell the meat sizzling. Rich people either really love grilling or really hate being told what to do. At least the squirrels still look normal. From behind him, in the apartment courtyard, Emily’s voice calls out. He turns to look. She’s standing outside their door, smiling impishly, her butterscotch-blonde hair flapping in the breeze. She waves a deck of cards at him. Mark leaps up, grinning. He feels devious and carefree, like a school-skipping kid who has no other goals than winning at games. There is, it turns out, an upside to the imminent collapse of the planet. It plants you firmly in the present.
Movie Nights. Afternoon Walks. God Is Hate.
During the day, Mark and Emily read books and play cards and go for walks. Their apartment is scuzzy but spacious. Mark plays his guitar and sings his bad-ass songs that nobody ever liked, but whatever, fuck ‘em all. Emily talks to her relatives on the phone, cheerfully counseling them. At night, they have dinner and watch a movie. Emily likes theme months. For some reason, this month’s theme is movies from 1989. Sometimes themes pick you, Emily says. Tonight she cooks spaghetti and they watch Pet Sematary.
“The title isn’t right,” Emily says on their walk the next day. “I mean, the actual evil place is behind the pet cemetery, you know? The pet cemetery itself is pretty cozy.”
Walk talk is movie talk. It beats discussing current events. As they wander the swank, woodsy neighborhoods, they try to pinpoint the best thing about the prior night’s movie. Which, in this case, means the scariest thing. Mark says it’s the zombified little boy at the end. Emily agrees, but adds that she loves the boy and wants to adopt him, ideally in his non-zombie form though she’s flexible. They pass other couples, wearing linen shirts and strolling affluently. The sun shines on lawns and lawn signs. After the trees turned yellow, and the scientists said the world was beyond saving, lawn signs became a big thing. Presently they pass a lawn with several signs. God Is Love, one says. Life After Earth, another says. White Pride, White Heaven, another says. Emily gasps. Mark growls. When he starts to yank up the sign, Emily gently stops him. They walk on in silence. Trees loom, squirrels play. The air tastes like stale pretzels. Mark is drowsy and depressed, like an old man who doesn’t see any point in ever leaving his rocker.
“If the world is gonna end,” he says, “I wish it would hurry up and do it already.”
“It’s a slow burn, baby,” Emily replies philosophically, almost happily.
The earth is poisoned, the scientists said. Limit your driving, they said. Stop the stupid backyard grilling! Stop the pesticides, the deforesting. People didn’t listen. Mark didn’t listen. Well, actually, he did listen, but he was too beat down by his grueling office job to worry about it. And anyway he drove only to work and didn’t grill or farm or hack down trees. Emily, an adjunct professor, wasn’t much of a polluter either. Although, of course, they were both consumers. Then, a year ago, all over the world, the trees turned a sickly yellow. The scientists said, Here you go, bitches. Here’s the apocalypse you ordered. Mark cashed out his few investments and quit his job. Kids abandoned college, so Emily no longer worked either. The scientists predicted two years until full ecological collapse, and the extinction of all earthly life, but warned that squirrels would mutate and start eating humans before then. They started to explain how to slow the collapse, but then laughed ruefully and said, Never mind, you wouldn’t listen anyway, party on, dopes.
Family. Sighting. Dark Emily.
On their walk one day, Emily talks about how desperately she misses her relatives. They live out east. She wants to visit them but travel is tricky. Long car trips are frowned upon. Train and air travel are limited and prices have spiked insanely. Mark fumes. Capitalism screws you even in end times; only the wealthy can afford to say all their goodbyes in person. The conversation eventually turns to Do the Right Thing, last night’s 1989 film.
“Near perfect!” Emily says. “The best thing is the mix of realism and stylization.”
That same day, Mark and Emily see their first mutated squirrel. Deformed and mangy and double-sized, it scampers up a tree and steps onto a branch, which snaps. The nasty fucker thumps to the ground, hissing. Then it spies a nearby dog, pounces on it, and starts feasting. Emily’s face glazes over. She becomes Dark Emily. Mark gulps. He’s met Dark Emily before, many times. In the following days, she says almost nothing to him, but rages over the phone at her relatives, telling them to fix their own friggin problems.
He tries to console her. “How can I help?” he asks one day. “Not that there’s, uh, anything wrong. But I could rub your feet. Or, I don’t know, help you cook dinner?”
Dark Emily doesn’t answer. Movie nights are quiet. Afternoon walks are silent. She huffs at her beloved mom, saying she’s not a therapy dog, she can’t be everyone’s support animal. Animals! That gives Mark an idea. Strumming his guitar, he makes up songs featuring cats and sharks and other creatures she likes. Dark Emily is unmoved. Then, miraculously, during Music Box and take-out pizza, Emily returns to the light.
“I really liked it,” she says after the movie. “You can never go wrong with Nazi war criminals. Except why is it called Music Box? The music box doesn’t even come into play until the end. You don’t even know there’s gonna be a music box until it shows up.”
Things Get Weirder.
And scarier. Teens in camouflage and with slingshots now wander the neighborhoods, sneering adolescently, blasting rocks at squirrels, both mutated and regular. From the TV news, Mark and Emily learn that these squirrel hunters are a worldwide occurrence. The scientists break their silence. Please don’t do this, they say. It’s just gonna make the squirrels who survive more violent. And even if all the squirrels were killed, the mutation would just switch to another animal. Emily is strangely amused. Early in our time of knowing each other, she says, would you ever guess that this is where we’d end up?
They met while volunteering at a homeless shelter. Mark couldn’t believe that she liked him. She had oozy blonde hair like an old-time starlet and wore cat’s-eye glasses. Her left forearm was crawling with animal tattoos. The way she talked was constantly surprising. She called the public library the librarium, she referred to a full moon as a werewolf moon. On an early date, at a Caribbean restaurant, she offered to split the check, which he refused. Well, but you can’t just keep paying for dinner all the time, she said, then talked about other things that he was too excited to hear. Her words, after all, had thrillingly implied many future dinners together. Life was sunny. She was like a porn star in bed. Her voice was like lemon drops. But the larger world continued to reject him. Lying awake one night, in grief over a bar gig he didn’t get, on the verge of tears, he sensed her hand tunneling toward him under the comforter, then felt it grip his shoulder. Goodnight, my darling, she said dreamily. I love you so much. I can’t wait to see you in the morning.
Neighborhoods. Travel Plans. All Politicos Go to Hell.
Trees sag, lawns wither. The air tastes like sour pickles. Fewer people take walks. Most squirrels are mutated. And pissed. Their bushy tails jitter angrily. Squirrel hunters, now armed with assault rifles, cruise around on skateboards. The wheels make a gravelly hum. For protection, from the mutated squirrels, but maybe also from the squirrel hunters, Mark digs up a machete from his bachelor days and wears it in a black sheath at his hip.
It’s a war of lawn signs. Faith Over Fear, some say. Save the Squirrels, others say. Death to Squirrels, others say. One day Mark and Emily see a mutated squirrel trampling over an anti-squirrel sign. It’s almost human-size, with huge, buck, fanging teeth. There’s a sputter of gunfire. Blood spurts from the squirrel; it squeals, then slumps. A teen with a rifle emerges from the bushes, cackling in victory. The squirrel, apparently faking, leaps up and pounces. Mark and Emily hurry away. Screams and chomping sounds fill the bright sky. Fuck it, they decide. Next week they’ll make the drive out to Emily’s family. She’s thrilled and stressed. Her stomach gurgles. She goes online and orders a hatchet.
“My poo is like a crime scene,” she says, exiting the bathroom one morning.
Mark rubs her feet while they watch the news. Christians say, Just have faith. Scientists say, Sure, have faith, but you can also do what’s right, you can still—aw, never mind. Some politicians gripe that a full-scale war on squirrels would’ve saved the world.
“Fucking bastards!” Mark rails, letting go of Emily’s feet. “That’s a lie and they know it. Aren’t they worried about their fucking souls? I mean, if we’ve learned anything from All Dogs Go to Heaven, it’s that only an honest life can save you from Hell.”
Emily jostles her feet. “Rub!” After he resumes, she says, “I agree, they’re effing bastards. But, well, I mean, I doubt they’ve seen All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
Life Is Funny.
It snickers. It laughs at your plans. On the day of their trip, Mark and Emily open their apartment door to find a large mutated squirrel in the courtyard. They shut the door. Mark draws his machete and says he’ll lure it away. If I don’t make it back, he says, go without me. Emily stops him. Maybe it’ll leave on its own, she says, peering out their only window. But in fact more squirrels gather. Night falls, dread blooms. The squirrels smack at the window; they want in. Mark grips his machete, Emily grabs her hatchet. Breathing feels like gasping. He whispers, You’re my only dream come true. The pane cracks.
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