According to the Overlee Otters press guide, Justin Taylor weighs in at six foot three and 265 pounds. The starting outside linebacker is sitting across from me in the campus security office, red-faced and trying to catch his breath as I look up from my report. "Anything else, Justin?"
Justin leans forward. "I thought I should say something, you know. In case it's ..." He looks over his shoulder and lowers his voice, like someone might be listening. "In case it's the one from the newspaper."
"You did the right thing," I say, not looking him in the eye. "Let's just make sure this report is accurate, okay?" Standard procedure requires that I verify all information with witnesses before filing the paperwork. I take a deep breath and begin to read my account of Justin's story.
Student on bench outside library, 11:30 a.m. Squirrel approached from nearby tree. Squirrel made eye contact. Student stood. Squirrel ran at student, jumped onto leg. Student wearing jeans. Student knocked squirrel to ground with hands.
I look up. Justin is casting glances out the window at the oak trees on the quad. Of course I am concerned about these unexplained attacks (four so far), but all I want to do is go home to Kaylin and Molly, smother my daughter in kisses, take my daily stab at convincing my wife the world isn't falling to pieces.
Squirrel did not flee. Squirrel jumped at student again. Student hit squirrel with backpack. Backpack contained heavy books. Squirrel seemed dazed. Student, uninjured, ran into library. Squirrel ran into bushes near Mayne Hall.
Justin coughs. "That's it," he says, shaking his head, as if he's at a funeral. "I can't believe it happened to me."
When Justin leaves, I lean back in my chair and press both palms, hard, against my eyelids until I see ghosts. I look at the empty desk across the room and consider calling Richie in the Bahamas. He'd know how to handle an evil squirrel. He'd call it a "minor disruption of daily activities." He'd be outside setting up traps, running wires in the trees, organizing a sting. All I've done is file reports, contact the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and walk around campus looking for mysterious movements in the shrubbery.
Molly, my wife, says I should be calling reinforcements. She says I'm not doing enough. She wants me to tell Richie to get his ass back to campus to deal with this emergency. She and I both know: Richie, my boss, would find this crazy squirrel, and Richie, bless his heart, would kill it.
Since the first attack ten days ago—the one that left the UPS delivery guy bleeding and speechless on the Albrights' porch—Molly has not let me take Kaylin outside.
Kaylin is packed into her stroller and we're heading for the door when Molly grabs my arm and shakes her head. "No," she says, squeezing to let me know she means business.
"Relax, Molly," I say. "We're a mile from campus. I'll take my gun."
Molly crosses her arms to let me know she doesn't like my joke. She stands in front of the door looking the way a linebacker should look. Bubbles flow from Kaylin's mouth, and she bangs her fists up and down like pistons on the stroller's safety bar.
Molly's reaction is not a surprise. Sixteen months ago, right after we found out she was pregnant, Molly started wearing reflector vests at night when she walked Fitzy, our beagle. She'd look out the window at our neighborhood of sidewalks and say, "It might be dark by the time we get back."
"I'm not being unreasonable, Brandon," Molly says now, glancing down at Kaylin. "Lights out." Our code for this argument is over.
"You were in the paper again," Molly says. She marches into the kitchen and returns with This Week in Westerville, already reciting the front page.
Westerville and the Overlee College campus were under siege again yesterday—terrorized by what some are calling a "Super Squirrel."
At least four squirrel bite reports have been collected by Westerville police, Overlee security officers and St. Ann's hospital over the past two weeks. Two people were bitten yesterday.
"The attacks appear to be from the same squirrel," said Overlee's Assistant Head of Security Brandon Hunter. "It's pretty aggressive—for a squirrel."
Hunter got close to subduing the Super Squirrel yesterday near Center Street. "He managed to throw some rocks at it," said witness Don Richardson, who was walking near campus when the encounter took place. The squirrel was unperturbed by the barrage, according to Richardson, and it managed to escape.
On their website, the State Department of Wildlife says, "Squirrels have not been known to cause rabies in humans in the United States." Still, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that anyone bitten by a mammal should consult health officials to determine if a rabies vaccine is necessary.
Molly, I know, will clip this article, just like the others, and post it on the refrigerator, right next to the Mr. Yuk magnet with the number for Poison Control.
"Should I go on?" Molly says.
I lift Kaylin from the stroller, and Molly's voice follows me upstairs to the nursery: "Hunter, a former Westerville police officer, admitted the squirrel has been difficult to track. ‘The squirrel was last seen at approximately 12:25 p.m.,' Hunter said. ‘It was running up a tree.'"
I miss the old Molly. We used to lie in bed and she would listen to me talk about some stupid teenage party I'd busted over in Spring Grove. This was back when I was a Westerville cop, redirecting parade traffic or cruising by the high school tennis courts to crack down on potheads and their underage girlfriends. If you ever got busted in the parking lot at Hoover Dam while making out with your Homecoming date five minutes after curfew, that was my flashlight tapping on your window. I used to tell Molly about the idiotic excuses from green-haired truants at the mall arcade or the tears on the faces of half the girls' soccer team when I pulled over a carload of them for drunk driving. She'd listen and rub my head and tell me I was fighting the good fight. She'd assure me I wasn't crazy for wanting to grab one of those kids by the collar and shake his brain back into functioning. "You're doing the best you can," she'd say. "I'm proud of you." Then she'd tell me about our future, the one with the baby and the dog. Life, she promised, would be perfect.
As soon as she got pregnant, Molly, my Molly, began to dissolve. She quit her job as an advertising sales rep, cut her hair short, and started putting bottles of Purell in every room in our house. When I'd get home from a late shift, Molly would be asleep, her legs wrapped around a snake-like pillow as long as our bed. We had to withdraw from the mixed doubles tennis tournament at our church (even though we were defending champs), and, playing solo, I got crushed in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
The day we saw the 3-D ultrasound, Molly squeezed my hand so hard, my class ring gouged me, drawing blood. Of course, I was a little bananas, too, buying an arsenal of inflatable sports equipment and the entire collection of Dr. Seuss. We did what all the experts told us to do. We nested, we prepped, we practiced breathing in counts of five. The day Kaylin was born, I rubbed Molly's neck until my fingers started to cramp, and then, poof, presto, ala-kazzam, Kaylin was here and Molly was gone.
The next day, the lactation specialist spent over an hour in our room, and, after several experiments involving ice packs and a hair dryer, came to the conclusion that Molly's nipples might not be suitable for nursing.
"It happens," she said. "Sometimes they just don't pop. Let's talk about formula."
Molly started to cry, and the nurse handed Kaylin to me. I could see her eyes moving beneath closed lids. "Be nice to Mommy," I whispered. "She loves you very much."
After another hour, in which Molly was fitted with something resembling a little Chinese hat for her breast, Kaylin finally latched on. Molly closed her eyes, her head sinking into the pillow. The nurses slipped from the room, and I was alone with my family, silently watching my girls from a chair by the window. For the first time in a long while, I was afraid of nothing.
Ten minutes later, Molly opened her eyes and gazed down at Kaylin, whispering words I couldn't hear.
"You both look happy," I said, rising, ready to place my hand on someone's head.
Molly moved sharply, as if she'd been startled, and Kaylin slipped from her breast.
"My gosh, Brandon," Molly said, poking her new hat at Kaylin's gaping mouth. "I didn't even know you were here."
As a general rule, squirrels and campus security officers, like myself, are enemies. Richie made this clear last year during my first week on the job. "Look," he said, like he was letting me in on a big secret. "All a squirrel's gonna do is tear up the flowerbeds, eat holes in the garbage bags, and shit on the picnic tables. When the kids are back on campus in the fall, these guys will be getting creamed all over the streets. You'll be out with a shovel at least twice a week. So if you see some idiot getting cutesy and letting a squirrel eat peanuts out of his hand, you stop that nonsense. You do what you gotta do."
Richie showed me the animal traps he kept in the basement. "We use these when we run into … problems." Richie said the last word in finger quotes. "Like when a squirrel gets stuck in the walls of a sorority house."
"What happens when we catch them?" I said.
Richie grinned. "Legally, you've got two options. You can release the squirrel back onto your own property, which is like crapping in your own pants. Or, you can make the world a better place, and kill the sucker."
From my days as a cop, I knew that releasing animals on someone else's property was illegal, but drowning a squirrel in Alum Creek didn't sound pleasant for anyone. Then again, I'd never had to shovel a pile of squirrel guts into the trunk of my security cruiser.
Richie, who was three years older than me, laughed and grabbed my shoulder. "Kid," he said. "On this job, it comes down to one simple rule: The only good squirrel is a dead squirrel."
I am applying Bactine to my raw and bloodied knee when the security office phone rings. I see that it's Molly. I will not tell her about this latest wound, my graceless plummet from a tree.
"Squirrel Squadron," I say into the receiver. "Secret Agent 007, here."
"Funny," Molly says. "You catch it?"
"Umm," I say.
"Call Richie," she says.
"Richie's on vacation. I've got it under control."
Molly sighs. "I'm taking Kaylin to Dr. Keck. Can you pick up a prescription later if we need one?"
"No problem," I say, trying to sound sunny. I cradle the phone with my shoulder and stretch a Band-Aid across my knee even though I know it will never stick.
"I'm sorry about being a pest, Brandon. I know you're trying. I just wish Richie was around."
"Don't wory about it," I say. "Lights out."
"Lights out," Molly repeats. "I love you."
I put down the phone and look at the family portrait on my desk. Molly cradles Kaylin, while I hover behind them, looming, it seems to me, with my hands on Molly's shoulders. I'm supposed to look protective, but I look more like I'm pressing a suspect into an interrogation chair: we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.
Outside the office in the hallway of University Hall, I pass a series of bulletin boards advertising student activities. Someone has posted a Photoshopped image of a squirrel in a beret holding a bazooka. Beside it, a sign announces an anti-war protest in pink bubble letters: An Eye For An Eye Leaves Everyone Blind.
I glance out the window at the quiet, green campus. Why do there have to be so many trees?
At the Campus Center, I grab lunch, a plate full of broccoli, which I love, and spinach, which I hate. Molly doesn't want me to eat cheeseburgers every day.
At the table next to mine, a kid in a baseball cap that says FCK U is reading This Week in Westerville. The banner headline screams: SQUIRREL ATTACK. Beside it is a sketch with the caption: "An artist's rendering of the Super Squirrel." It looks exactly like every other squirrel I've ever seen.
I stab a broccoli tree and cram it in my mouth. Molly, who used to be all about broccoli, gave it up after Kaylin was born. She said it was too gassy for someone breastfeeding a baby.
"So no broccoli for two years?" I said.
Molly nodded. "Possibly three."
On Wednesday, when I get home at sunset, Molly and Kaylin greet me at the door. Molly kisses my cheek while Kaylin pulls my hair.
"Well?" Molly says, same as yesterday. "Did they catch it?"
I shake my head and move to the fridge. I grab a Budweiser and a bottle of formula that I hold up to Molly, whose nipples haven't been popping lately. "Is it time?"
Molly adjusts the bundle on her shoulder. "Just had one," she says. "Getting tired now." I can't tell if she means Kaylin or herself.
I set the bottles on the counter, reach for Kaylin and lift her toward the ceiling. I wonder what Kaylin must think when she's looking down on her world. It is something I do without fail: the lift. Raising my giggling child toward the sky. I want Kaylin to feel that I'll always be there to hold her above the messiness of the world, to give her the chance to see what I cannot. The lift is the best part of my day.
Molly hates the lift. She reaches for my shoulder, paws at my sleeve. I am waiting for the day when she mentions the perils of sudden altitude change. I will sacrifice for Molly (quit the police force, paint houses on my off-days, sell my motorcycle, drop my bowling league) but I will not give up the lift.
Kaylin makes a sound like a flooded garbage disposal and a splash of drool hits my cheek. I bring her down and we touch noses, both of us laughing. Then I spin Kaylin so we are looking at Molly. "Come on, Mommy," I want to say. "You can laugh, too."
"Did you see about signing up for classes?" Molly says, turning away.
Molly has been urging me to enroll part-time in Overlee's education program. She wants me to become a teacher like her dad, a job that she argues will have better insurance and retirement opportunities. Fewer squirrels. But no matter how aggressively she pushes, I can't see myself standing in front of a room full of spaced-out teenagers, trying to explain the Missouri Compromise. I haven't dared to ask when Molly plans to return to work.
"I didn't have time," I say.
"The squirrel?" Molly says.
I hold Kaylin like she's an airplane, moving her in dips and dives. Her laugh is like a songbird. Molly reaches out and takes Kaylin from my arms. My brain sends the signal—fight or flight—but all I do is stand there, empty-handed, as Molly turns away and carries Kaylin into the kitchen. I see my daughter's smiling face bouncing above Molly's shoulder. Then Kaylin reaches up and waves goodbye.
Later that night, I am stretched on the floor of our bedroom, the muted TV glowing green with highlights from the Reds game. Kaylin sleeps on my chest, riding the waves of my breathing as if she's floating. Whenever she grips my thumb, I know that she'll one day grow to play a flawless second base, flipping the ball perfectly to start a wicked double play, grabbing the cut-off throw and firing a bullet to nail the runner at third.
Molly sprawls on the bed, reading, the covers kicked to the floor. The moment she found out she was pregnant, she started to collect what everyone calls "The Baby Books." She has filled two shelves of the bookcase in our family room, replacing my grandfather's complete works of Mark Twain with titles such as Baby Steps for Parents and The New Baby Owner's Manual.
Tonight, she is reading Baby-B-Safe: Everything You Need to Know to Have the Healthiest Baby on the Block. It is one of her favorites.
Molly hits me in the head with a balled-up sock. "You cleaned your crap out of the garage, didn't you? Alex is coming tomorrow."
Alex is our real estate agent, the guy who's supposed to sell our house. Molly is obsessed with keeping everything clean for next weekend's showing. Yesterday she vacuumed the dining room three times. When I tried to ask her what she wanted on her salad, she looked up but didn't turn off the roaring machine. I was left in the doorway waving a tomato at her like an idiot.
I don't want to move. I like our house, our first home, but Molly can't stand that we live on a street where the speed limit is thirty miles per hour. She's convinced we'll be able to find something bigger and cheaper if we just keep looking.
"I'll take care of the garage in the morning," I say, pretending not to hear Molly's sigh.
"One more thing," she says. "Kaylin's eyes still look weird."
I return the sock with a blind hook shot that misses the bed completely.
"They were flickering," Molly says. "Her eyes."
I can't even imagine what this would look like, but I lift my head and say, "That's what eyes do, honey. They flicker."
"And she's having trouble swallowing. You've noticed, right?"
"Molly," I say, placing one hand completely over Kaylin's bald head. "She's swallowing like a baby swallows. And her eyes are fine."
I wait for Molly to finish her list of symptoms, and when she doesn't, I carefully slide one hand under Kaylin and shift her as I would a pizza slice from my chest to the floor where I place her in a nest of pillows.
I twist around, rise to my knees and lean across the bed where I can reach Molly's toes. I count her piggies until she pulls her feet away and slides them under the sheet.
"Kaylin's fine," I say. "Dr. Keck says everything is normal. Just like the last check-up and the one before that. These books are putting ideas in your head." I look down at my sleeping child whose arms are above her head as if indicating a successful field goal. "Our baby is an angel."
Molly tilts her head. Beneath the sheet I see her toes wiggling as she sets the open book down on my side of the bed. She reaches over to switch off the light, and I am left in the blue glow of the nightly news.
"Put Kaylin in the crib," Molly says, as if I could possibly forget to do this. A minute later, I realize Molly is crying, her quiet sobs the closest I've ever heard anyone come to "boo-hoo-hoo." I crawl onto the bed and run my hand through Molly's hair.
"Talk to me," I say, hoping Kaylin won't wake up to find Mommy in tears.
After several deep breaths, Molly rolls to face me. "I know you think I'm being crazy sometimes," she says. "But nothing is easy. So much can go wrong."
"I know," I say. "It's okay."
"I just want Kaylin to be safe. I want you to understand."
"I know," I say. "I do."
If I were a stronger man, I'd raise Molly in a lift, hold her to the sky, show her we have everything we need. I'd spin her in circles, not stopping until she lost her breath laughing. Then we'd bump noses, adrift in the promises of each other's eyes.
I lie there until I hear the sleep rhythm of Molly's breathing. Then I rise up on my elbow and stare at the TV, some movie about killer insects. Eventually, I ease out of bed, lift Kaylin like she's a giant egg, and carry her across the hall to her crib. My head hits the mobile as I place her in and the tinkling of bells, like fairy wings, fills the air.
I can't sleep. I watch the play of headlights moving shadows across the walls. Molly lies on the edge of the bed, more than an arm's length away. My daughter, the angel with the flickering eyes, is behind bars in the nursery, probably dreaming of ice cream. Molly wants Kaylin to be safe. Molly wants me to understand. I reach for the night table, grab the baby book, and slip downstairs for a glass of milk.
Baby-B-Safe. I study the cover, two hands cupped beneath an infant's skull. When I hold Kaylin like this I can see the pulsing of her fontanelle.
Outside, the motion-sensitive patio bulb pours light into the corner of the yard and I lift my head. I get up and open the sliding door. There's a rustle in the trees. A skitter? A voice? Stepping into the yard, I am disoriented by the sharp shadows darting across the grass.
The noise is coming from the tall maple near the fence, the tree I used to envision as the site of Kaylin's future tree house. Now I know there's zero chance Molly will go for any plaything that rises more than a foot off the earth. I walk to the base of the tree and hear it again. Chattering, like someone nibbling crackers in the back of a movie theatre. The noise a giggling rodent might make.
"Okay, squirrel," I say under my breath. I think of the attacks on campus, what they're doing to Molly. If I can defeat the squirrel, maybe Molly will rub my back like she used to, tell me she's proud of the man I've become. Winning the battle will be like hitting a big, red reset button.
But it's dark, it's midnight. I can't see beyond the shadows of the first two branches. I'm still holding Baby-B-Safe. I imagine a squirrel up there, bigger than a dog, carrying Kaylin away in its jaws. The commotion gets louder in the leaves above, and, without thinking, I fling the book skyward, like a live grenade. It doesn't come down.
"God damn," I say, staring into the tree. Now what?
I head inside and return with a flashlight. Baby-B-Safe is twenty feet up, draped over a branch like a towel. The chattering has stopped.
I stare at the book—everything I need to know—suspended high out of reach. Grabbing the lowest branch with my free hand, I shake as hard as I can. Nothing. I flex my knee and feel the Band-Aid hanging loose on one side. Behind me, the patio door slides open, and I spin around, startled. My flashlight beam hits Molly in the face. She squints and puts up a hand, a pose familiar to any cop who's ever worked the nightshift. I leave the light there for a second, watching Molly cringe, before I lower it to the ground.
"What are you doing?" she says, in a hiss that actually means, what is wrong with you?
I walk toward the house and swing the beam back at the maple. "I thought I heard something. In the tree."
Molly arches her eyebrows. "It's after midnight," she says, waving me toward the open door. "For a minute, I thought you were a prowler."
I have never heard Molly use this word. "Sorry," I say. Then I follow her inside. We're in the kitchen when we hear the familiar squawk coming from upstairs, Kaylin's wake-up call.
"I'll get it," Molly and I say at the same time, our hands colliding on the refrigerator's handle.
"I'm already up," Molly says. "It's okay."
I let go of the handle and watch Molly slip away up the shadowy staircase. The patio floodlight is still on, and I reach to flip the switch. Leaning my forehead against the glass door, I stare at the giant tree. Somewhere in the leaves, Baby-B-Safe hangs like an apple. I decide that's where it belongs.
On Friday, the squirrel strikes again.
I pull up next to the arena in my cruiser and see three people beside a blue Corolla. One is a Westerville cop, a younger guy I used to work with on parade duty, Eddie Hatzo. His thumbs are tucked into his belt and he is rocking back and forth on his heels as he listens to a kid in a sleeveless shirt. The kid gestures wildly with his hands and arms, a combination of sign language and interpretive dance. As I approach, the third member of the group steps toward me. She eyes my badge and offers her hand.
"You're Brandon Hunter?" she says. "I'm Becky LaPierre. We've spoken on the phone. This Week in Westerville."
"Miss LaPierre," I say.
"Call me Becky."
Becky can't be more than three years out of college. She immediately reminds me of Molly—before the reflector vests and the no-broccoli diet. Becky wears her hair in a tight ponytail and the sleeves of her white blouse are rolled past her elbows. I shake her hand and nod.
Eddie turns to me and smiles. "Brandon Hunter," he says. "What a world."
I nod again and wonder how these people got here before I did.
Eddie grabs the kid by the shoulder and says, "Donny here was just telling us about this attack." He looks at me and winks. "It's that darn squirrel again. I'd have thought you guys would have shot it by now." Then he sizes me up. "Oh, yeah, that's right, they don't give you guns."
I consider pulling rank and asking Eddie and Becky to leave because the incident took place on university property, but they all seem to be getting along, and the last thing I need is to come across as a prick. Eddie has that covered.
Becky clears her throat. "Tell us again," she says to Donny.
Donny gets into what appears to be a wrestling stance and explains how he was going back to his car after working out when he saw a squirrel drop from the trees on the other end of the lot and race toward him. "So this thing was all crazy, you know, and he … it … whatever, just keeps coming, so I figure I've just got to dodge it, right?" Donny bobs and weaves. "But it's, like, zeroed in on my leg, and when I jump to the side, it just swerves around and bites me on the ankle." Donny points to the scratches just above his sock. "So I reach down and grab it and throw it." Donny stands up straight. Apparently, the story is over.
"You threw it?" I say.
Donny nods. "It seemed pretty dazed after that and ran off toward the baseball field."
Eddie steps forward. "Did you throw it down real hard, like on the pavement?"
"No," Donny says. "I didn't think of that. I just threw it. But I threw it a long way."
Twenty minutes later, after Eddie has left to drive Donny to the hospital, Becky looks at me and shrugs. "So now what?"
According to Richie, Rule Number One when dealing with people, especially the media, is to take every situation seriously, no matter how bizarre the circumstances. This rule is useful, for instance, when breaking up a fraternity's naked initiation ceremony or finding grownups giving each other hand-jobs in the bushes during Alumni Weekend.
I look around the empty campus. "It has to stop sooner or later," I say. "I keep waiting for the hidden camera guys to pop out and start laughing at everyone."
Becky closes her notebook and stuffs it in her bag. "It's no prank, Mr. Hunter. But what I can't figure out is why everyone is acting like the sky is falling. I mean, don't you hear some of these stories and just want to laugh? Or am I the crazy one?"
"I get paid to take things seriously," I say. "It's your newspaper that's treating this situation like the new Jaws."
"We're treating this situation like it's the news, Mr. Hunter. That is what I get paid to do." Becky takes off her glasses and puts them in a case. "You know, there are rumors going around. Angry raccoons downtown. The police got called out to the dam last night. Heard it was a wolf."
"You're not reporting that, are you?" I say, thinking of Molly.
Becky shakes her head. "Just rumors, right? Some people are just crazy."
I look into the leaves of a nearby tree. "So what's the real story?" I say. "What's going on with this squirrel?"
"You mean, like, what's my theory?" Becky says. "Could be sick. Could be insane." She shifts the bag on her shoulder. "I talked to this researcher at Ohio State who said that any time an animal's behavior is a bit … off, there are usually babies involved. Frightened mothers will do just about anything to protect their young. It's kind of romantic, don't you think?"
I shrug, catching Becky in an awkward stare, the kind of gaze Molly used to send my way right before we turned out the lights. "Call me if anything comes up," Becky says, handing me her card.
I watch Becky climb into a rusty Civic and wave goodbye, then I place my hands on the roof of my cruiser. It's nearly dinnertime. I promised I'd make the salad.
As I approach the arena parking lot, I see Coach Reynolds locking the gym doors. I ask if he wants me to say anything about the squirrel to the eighth-graders at basketball camp. He shakes his head. "No," says the gray-haired man whose career record is 395-86, "I think they're better off not knowing. We're talking about a squirrel, right? I wouldn't want them to panic."
I am in the garage, sweeping the corners, staring at the oil-stained cement that will never come clean. Molly is in the kitchen assembling ingredients for the oatmeal cookies she will bake before next weekend's open house. I scan the white walls, looking at the spots where my tools used to hang. Anything with a blade now lies in a heap on the floor of my parents' shed on the other side of town.
Three months before Kaylin was born, Molly cracked the spines of four baby books and placed them on the kitchen table. They bloomed open like fountains while she read from a series of checklists.
I tried to lighten the mood by saluting as I left the room to unscrew cabinet handles and stick plastic covers over the outlets.
Later, Molly carried one of the books into the garage to supervise my mission: I was stacking buckets. Molly wanted them gone.
"Can't we just put them in the basement?" I said.
Molly dangled one in front of my nose so I could see the sticker on its side. The pictogram showed a toddler falling headfirst into a bucket. "Babies can drown in less than three inches of water," the label warned.
I carried the buckets out to the curb and set them down beside a bottle of Drano and a bag full of refrigerator magnets.
Now I look around at a room devoid of danger. Even the windows are washed. I pull a string and the garage door rumbles open. Sunlight streams in, and I squint against the brightness.
Molly opens the door to the house and leans out. "What are you doing?" she says.
I turn, puzzled by the question.
"Keep the door closed," she says. "You're letting in dirt and bugs and god knows what. You don't want to have to clean it again."
"What's the big deal?" I say, unsure how hard I should push. "I'm letting in some fresh air."
Molly looks stumped, like she's doing a math problem in her head. "I just want everything to be perfect," she says. "Plus, you woke up Kaylin."
I hold out my arms, gesturing around the garage. "I'm just trying to do what you asked me to do."
Molly hits the button and the door begins to lower. Then she hits it again and it reverses. "I've been looking for one of the baby books," she shouts to be heard above the growling door. "Know where it is?"
I think of Baby-B-Safe, high in the tree. "No," I say. "Look under the bed."
Molly again hits the control and steps inside as the shadow of the descending door cuts across my face. My brain fires up a primal signal, and I feel the impulse to escape, to dive, Indiana Jones-style, and roll outside onto the driveway before the door clamps shut. But I'm too slow. The opening seals with a final rattle, and I can feel the tremor in my toes.
That night Molly curls into me as we lie in the dark. She is running through her list of names for Kaylin's future brother when I drift into a half-dream.
Molly and I are walking down a neighborhood street in the middle of the day. Molly carries Kaylin in a pouch on her tummy. I hear a screech of tires and squint into the sun just as a car swerves around a corner and runs into Molly. It gets her right in the Snugli.
Molly, not the dream one, pinches my shoulder. "You were making your noises," she says.
"No, I wasn't," I say with a sticky mouth. I roll over and mumble about getting some water.
With the lights out, I run my fingertips along the wall to get to Kaylin's room. I know right away she is sleeping, and I listen to the beautiful rhythm. At times her breathing sounds like something coming unstuck.
I trip down the stairs into the kitchen and reach for the refrigerator. Ice clunks into my glass, followed by the hiss and spray of water from the built-in tap. I flick on the overhead light and collapse at the table.
The baby books. They're here. Stacked in piles like they're waiting to be inventoried. I grab a thick one off the top: The Mother of All Baby Books by Abbey Massoud-Tastor. Colorful strips of sticky paper protrude from various pages, creating a rainbow effect. These are the passages Molly wants me to read.
Page fifty-seven suggests that a toilet paper tube can be used to determine whether a toy is a choking hazard. Or, like Molly, you can buy an official plastic No-Choke Testing Tube for five dollars. I am baffled by two seemingly identical photographs on page 255 that claim to show the difference between a sealed blisterpack and one that has been tainted by a cyanide capsule. I learn that, since 1975, seven toddlers have died from iron supplement tablets. I am horrified to discover there is such a thing as Floppy Infant Syndrome. In chapter five, I cringe at the warning not to bathe Kaylin in the kitchen sink. The words garbage disposal are in bold print. Flipping to the index, I find nothing listed under "Squirrel."
I don't want these books in my house, reminding me of disaster. Nothing is going to happen to Kaylin. For Molly's sake, I've got to stay faithful to that belief. Where will we be if I don't?
Molly will miss the books, I know, but I sweep them into my arms anyway. We don't need them anymore. "The books are gone," I'll say when she comes to me in a panic. "Lights out." I carry the manuals into the backyard and stand at the base of the maple.
When I am finished, I look at my creation. Hidden among the foliage, the baby books sit like ripened fruit. I look up at the bedroom window where Molly lies sleeping and allow myself an impossible fantasy: one day in October, as the leaves start to fall, she will look out the window while washing a coffee cup at the kitchen sink. She will shake her head, not believing her eyes. She will gather Kaylin in her arms and carry her outside to gaze at the tree. She will point and whisper as she places Kaylin down in the bug-filled grass, marveling at the miracle in her own backyard.
I hear the pellet shots coming from Front Street during my afternoon walk around the campus perimeter. It's the Albright boy, on his porch with a BB gun, pointing across the yard. He was the squirrel's second victim, the kid who reported grabbing the creature by the tail and snapping it off his back like a wet towel. He sees my uniform and yells, "That's the one. Black tail. He's going downtown."
I look toward College Ave. and, sure enough, I see the squirrel. It's moving on a wire, darting between leafy branches that span the road. I put up one hand to stop a passing SUV, then sprint across the street in pursuit. The confused driver leans forward and squints up at the sun. "Don't shoot," I call to the Albright kid. "Get inside."
The squirrel soars from wire to wire, branch to branch, zigzagging in no detectable pattern like a pinball. I sprint to keep up, trying not to fall on my face while gazing into the trees. Cars are stopping. Pedestrians are staring.
I am breathing like a prizefighter when the squirrel races down a tree trunk and bounds across the grass toward the Student Union. A girl in pajama pants is sitting on the steps, talking on a cell phone. "Move," I yell. "Squirrel."
The girl pulls her knees to her chest and shields herself with a notebook as the squirrel and I race past, leaving a slew of priceless camera-phone videos in our wake.
I have become a frenzied predator, heart pounding, focused on my kill. The squirrel has been in control for long enough. It is time to restore order.
The squirrel zooms ninety degrees up the wooden fence surrounding the baseball field and disappears on the other side. I skid to a stop and launch myself awkwardly over the fence by swinging my legs to the side and pushing with my arms. I end up in a pile, face down in the centerfield grass. The squirrel is rounding third and heading for home.
As I lurch to my feet and limp toward the dugout, I catch a break. The squirrel scampers down the phony turf of the batting cages by the first base dugout and slows to a stop, surrounded on all sides by thick netting. Trapped.
The two batting cages are like a tunnel, with netting that drops down from a rectangular frame. The mesh holes are smaller than a baseball, smaller than a bat handle. A squirrel would have to eat its way through to escape. As soon as I step inside, I unhook the flap that drops the last piece of netting, effectively sealing the cage. The squirrel has nowhere to go.
The squirrel doesn't realize this, of course, and spends several minutes racing around the perimeter of the cage, even scurrying up the sides of the netting and clinging, upside down, to the top. For a moment, I think it has found a hole, but after fitting only its head through, it wriggles backwards and drops to the turf. I am fifty feet away, with my hand at my hip, where my gun would be if I was still a cop.
The number for Animal Control is in the cell phone on my belt. I should let the experts take it from here. Richie will be back in two days, tan and hungover, barking orders left and right. He'll tell me I should have called. But I can't. This is my campus, my town. This squirrel has done something to my family, and I want to know why. I want to be the hero.
The squirrel crouches at the other end of the cage, staring. As I was trained to do at the police academy, I scan the area for potential weapons. In addition to my baton, there is an overturned bucket near my feet beside a half-eaten bag of sunflower seeds. I return the squirrel's stare. If we were in an old Western, we'd hear a distant train whistle or the sound of a cracking whip.
I pick up the bucket and walk forward. The squirrel skips back and forth, like a boxer, bobbing and weaving. I have no idea what I'm doing. This particular scenario was never addressed in the handbook.
When I get within ten feet, both of us freeze. "Okay, Squirrely, Squirrely," I say in the voice I use when I want Kaylin to go to sleep. The squirrel rises on two legs and sprints forward. I hurl the bucket and it makes a hollow thud as it bounces into the corner and rolls back in my direction. The squirrel, unharmed, reaches the end of the batting cage and turns, picking up speed. I stumble backwards and trip over the bucket, landing flat on my back as the squirrel darts like a blitzing linebacker. By swinging my boot, I am able to deflect the squirrel's charge, but I feel a sting on my uncovered forearm. The squirrel's claws are a tiny rake scraping my skin, and the animal is trying to bite my thumb. I fling my arm up violently and the squirrel, as if launched by a catapult, hits the netting at the back of the cage.
Scrambling to my feet and using the bucket as a shield, I face my foe. At least one of us is bleeding.
I set the bucket upside down and slowly take a seat. My palms are upturned in what I hope is the sign for peace and goodwill throughout the animal kingdom. The squirrel leans back on two legs, but shows no sign of another charge.
"Truce?" I say, keeping the squirrel's gaze. With a slow reach, I pick up the bag of sunflower seeds and shake some into my palm. "Everything will be okay," I say. "Let's just take it easy."
I let some seeds fall through my fingers, and I see the squirrel's nose twitch. I toss a few more onto the turf. "That's it," I say, as the squirrel inches forward. "Seeds are good." I put a few in my mouth. "Yum." I've done this with Kaylin dozens of times. Winter squash, avocado, blueberry puree.
I outweigh this creature by 190 pounds, yet I'm not sure I can kill it. It looks almost cuddly, nibbling at seeds, bringing its paws to its mouth as if trying to conceal a laugh.
After ten minutes, the squirrel is still eating, and I am still tossing seeds on the ground. We've fallen into a rhythm. I shake the bag, click my tongue, and say, "Who's hungry?" Then I scatter the seeds. The squirrel munches away, grabbing the dark husks and inhaling them like a vacuum cleaner, occasionally standing up straight to demonstrate what I interpret as kung-fu poses necessary for digestion.
I dump the rest of the seeds from the bag and slide my baton from my belt. The squirrel stands up and cocks its head to the side, as if considering whether I, too, am food. I hear Richie's voice in my head: "Hunter, you better kill that sucker. If he was big enough, he'd kill you." I hear Molly's voice on a loop: "Nothing is easy. So much can go wrong. Nothing is easy. So much can go wrong." Becky chimes in: "Some people are just crazy." Kaylin remains silent, napping through the chaos.
The world is full of tricks, and I can't stop any of them. Mad squirrels, collapsing bridges, school shootings, dirty floors. I tell myself that one day Molly will feel safe enough to walk outside in a thunderstorm, laughing at the raindrops. One day Kaylin will come to work with her daddy and see that I am doing the best I can. One day all the squirrels will stop attacking.
I imagine sitting with Becky LaPierre for a triumphant final interview, Becky smiling and reaching out to touch my hand. The headline, SQUIRREL SUBDUED, beams across the front-page. On page two, a photo of me holding the dead squirrel by the tail as if it's the head of a vanquished enemy.
I tell myself that I'll have the old Molly back once this is all over, when the squirrel stories are gone from the newspapers, when our house is sold, our bills are paid, and our daughter is once again allowed outside. Life will be different. All it will take is one mighty swing.
The radio on my belt is crackling, but the squirrel continues to gnaw at the seeds. The sun is disappearing behind the left field fence, and I flex my legs. My knee is swollen. Molly will notice the limp. I look at the shadowy trees surrounding the field. How can anyone ever feel safe?
I look into the squirrel's eye, black and shiny like a marble, staring at my raised baton. It is the way Molly used to look when we'd be watching a news story about a police officer killed in the line of duty. Molly would cry, even when the victims were from places she'd never been: New Bedford, North Dakota, Nebraska. She'd pull the blankets over her head and tell me she couldn't raise a baby with someone who wore a bulletproof vest every day. I'd crawl under the covers and nibble her chin. "I'll find a new job," I'd say. "We'll make it work," I'd promise. "I love you," I'd swear.
Title graphic: "Flung" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.