Saturday 21 September 2019

Scratch, Scratch, Scratch

by Jim Bates

ice tea with lemon

Jack Anderson whistled as he bounded down the stairs to check another job off the To Do List, this one to change the furnace filter. It was the last day in May, a beautiful Saturday morning, and he wanted to get outside and start on the garden. He and his wife, Darby, had three flats full of zinnias, marigolds and impatiens to plant and time was wasting. He was a product manager at a medium sized software development company and was used to everything running on schedule, even weekends. This Saturday was no exception. Change the filter, plant the flowers and then get the grill going to do some barbecue chicken, everything nicely planned.
            Life was good in Jack's world. Good that was until he stepped off the last step into the basement, turned into the furnace room and almost put his face into the tail of a squirrel hanging from the rafters.
            "Jesus Christ," he yelled, jumping back. The squirrel turned to face him, bared it's teeth, and Jack had a momentary panic that it was going to attack. He pictured the animal sinking it's claws into his face and teeth into his nose, rivers of blood running down his shirt, then undergoing weeks of painful rabies shots. No way. He threw up his arm to protect himself and yelled, "Get the hell out of here!" or something to that effect. Truth be told, he was rattled. A rodent in the house? Unacceptable. This would not do.
            Darby heard him yell from all the way outside by the garden shed. She hurried in through the back door and called down the stairs, "Jack? Are you okay? What's going on?"
            "There's a god damn squirrel down here, Darby. Almost bit me," he said, embellishing a little. In truth, the squirrel had panicked and scurried up a cast iron pipe and was now hiding in the space between the ceiling and floor above him. He could hear it scratching and clawing so he acted fast. "I'm going to plug around this pipe," he said. "Where's that steel wool?"
            Five minutes later he stood back and surveyed his work. He'd used an entire bag of steel wool to fill up every hole he could find in the unfinished ceiling of the furnace room.  When he was done he called for Darby come downstairs. Their house was nearly one-hundred years old, well cared for, but old. There were potentially lots of spaces for a squirrel to hide, a point borne out by the noisy squirrel above them in the ceiling scratching and scurrying around like he owned the place.
            "Damn," Jack grimaced, his face turning red. "God damn it to hell."
            Darby took him by the arm to try and calm her high-strung husband."Let's take a step back and go upstairs, dear," Darby suggested. "I'll fix us some ice tea and we can try to figure out what to do."
            "I already know what I'm going to do," Jack stated emphatically, pulling away, face turning redder by the second. "I'm going to trap that damn thing. And then I'm going to kill it."
            Darby signed and shook her head. This was not going to end well.
            It turned out the squirrel was smarter than Jack. It had an entryway into the house up in a corner of the eaves on the second story that was impossible for either he or Darby to get to. They saw it later that morning when they were surveying the outside, trying to figure out where it might be entering and exiting their home. The squirrel had inadvertently played it's hand when it popped it's head out from a loose soffit, two storeys above them, taken a quick look at the two people watching from below and scurried out of the hole, up onto the roof and over to the other side of the house where it disappeared from view.
            "God damn it," Jack screamed, blood rushing to his face. "I'm getting my keys."
            "Where are you going?" Darby asked, greatly concerned. Jack had high blood pressure and didn't handle stress well. On top of his stressful job he now had this pesky squirrel to contend with. He had to watch himself.
            "To the hardware story. Donny had trouble with squirrels, remember?"
            Darby did remember. Jack's younger brother had used a Havaheart live trap to get rid of some nuisance squirrels around his property a few years before. "He used those live traps right?"
            "Yeah," Jack said grimily. "I'm going to get one."
            He came home with three. He baited them with peanut butter and dry corn and waited. By the end of the day he'd caught three squirrels and a chipmunk but couldn't bring himself to kill them. Instead, he drove them to a park five miles away and released them. He knew it was against the law, but what the hell. Out of sight, out of mind was his way of thinking.
            That evening Jack was feeling pretty smug, thinking that at least one of the three squirrels he'd trapped that day was the one getting into his house. He was just sitting down with Darby to watch some television when they heard something in the ceiling right above them in the living room. A noise of some sort. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
            "What's that?" Jack asked, standing up, listening carefully.
            "Sounds like something's up in the ceiling," Darby said. "You don't suppose..."
            "No, it couldn't be," Jack said, just as the thing scampered overhead and chattered loudly as if to provoke them. "I can't believe it! It's that friggin' squirrel," Jack yelled. He ran to the kitchen and grabbed a broom and smacked it against the ceiling trying to scare the animal away, but to no avail. It scampered and chattered and even chewed on a nut (it sounded like) for the rest of the evening. In fact, the squirrel kept at it until late at night until finally all went quiet.
            "Maybe it's asleep," Darby suggested, worn out. Not so much by the squirrel but by dealing with Jack. He was frazzled and beside himself he was so mad.
            "Yeah. Hopefully," Jack said, suddenly feeling strangely forlorn and depressed. He couldn't stand that the squirrel was 'winning the battle' as he thought of the situation. He sighed a resigned sigh, "Maybe we should turn in ourselves and try to get some sleep."
            And one of them did. Darby slept like a log but Jack barely a wink. The last thing in the world he could do was to calm down and relax. He kept picturing the squirrel in the house hiding somewhere doing whatever it wanted to do and the very thought of it drove him crazy. He was up and the crack of dawn, wandering around the house, listening to every creak and crack, knowing for certain that, somehow, magically, the one squirrel from the night before had increased tenfold in number. At eight in the morning, exhausted and at his wits end, he called West Metro Rodent Control. They said they'd send someone out that afternoon.
            That someone was Bryan who showed up after lunch. He was a big man with a full beard, a long ponytail and tattoos on both arms. To Jack it looked like he could take care of himself and any squirrel for that matter, especially after he'd slipped on some safety glasses and a pair of leather gloves that went to his elbows. He took fifteen minutes climbing around on the roof, using his high ladder to inspect the eaves and a powerful flashlight to probe ever possible entryway into the house.
            After a thorough survey of the outside, Bryan summarized the problem by saying, "It looks like you've got just the one entryway in the soffit on the second story. I looked in and there's some insulation in there. I'd say there was a nest, some babies were born there and one is probably still living there."
            Jack was shaking with rage but tried to keep his voice calm. "Can you do something about it."
            Bryan smiled. "Easy. It's what I do."
            Jack breathed a sigh of relief.
            Next to him Darby asked, "How much will it cost?"
            Jack held up his hand to intervene, "It doesn't matter. Just do it."
            Bryan did. And in the end he was true to his word. It took him four days to capture the squirrel. He put three live traps on the roof to go with Jack's three live traps on the ground. Between the two of them they caught seven squirrels which Bryan took to land a farmer friend of his owned and set them free.
            Rid of the squirrel, Bryan then sent in a subcontractor who plugged the hole and sealed the soffits.
            A week later, when Bryan came back for his final inspection, he surveyed the work of the subcontractor and checked the roof line. All looked well, nice and sealed. He told Jack and Darby, "It's all done. I guarantee you'll be squirrel free from now on. Just keep an eye on the roof line. If anything looks suspicious, don't hesitate to call." Then he gave Jack an invoice for two thousand dollars.
            "You bet I will," Jack said, happily writing out a check, feeling very smug. Problem solved. He was already looking forward to the first good night's sleep in two weeks.
            But that didn't happen. That first night he awoke to a scratching sound in the wall right next to his bed. He sat up and woke Darby. "Do you hear that?" he asked her.
            But she didn't. "It's all in your imagination," she told him. "Just go back to sleep."
            Easier said than done. In fact, for the next week Jack heard scratching in the wall next to his head every night. Scratch, scratch, scratch. It was beginning to drive him nuts.
            Darby heard nothing, so finally, after a week, she made a suggestion, "Maybe you should give Dr. Jensen a call."
            Dr. Jensen was Jack's psychologist, someone he talked with to help deal with stress at work.
            "Good idea," Jack said. He needed to do something. He wasn't sleeping, he wasn't eating and his work at the office was suffering . He made an appointment.       
            A few days later, after listening intently during their first meeting, Dr. Jenson told Jack the sounds he was hearing were a manifestation of the stress he'd been under while trying to rid his house of the squirrel. Jack didn't care what the doctor called it, he just wanted the scratching to go away. It was as if the squirrel was still there, not in his home, but right inside his head. Something had to be done.
            "Too bad they don't make a trap for situations like this," Jack said to his shrink that first visit, to which Dr. Jensen just shook his head and smiled, sympathetic to Jack's plight but also happy to bill him for his time. No matter how long it took.
Jack's immediate plan is to continue to see Dr. Jensen. All he wants is for the scratching to go away. Some nights he doesn't hear a thing. No scratching. No nothing. And that's good. He's willing to pay whatever it takes to make that noisy squirrel inhabiting his brain go away. The cost doesn't matter. It'll be worth it.
            Unbeknownst to Jack, however, a squirrel is in the process of taking up residence in his home. She's a young mother to be and she's eagerly searching for a place to build her nest. She's expecting her babies soon so she's cautious as she hops around the back garden feeling more and more comfortable. There are lots of trees and nuts. Lots of food. It looks like a good place to raise her family. She scampers up to the roof where she's found a teeny-tiny opening under a soffit. If she's diligent she can open up a hole and crawl inside. Then she'll build a nest and start her new family. Yes, she thinks to herself, this will work out just fine. Happily, she begins clawing and scratching. Scratch, scratch, scratch.

About the auhtor 

 Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Mused - The BellaOnline Literary Review, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard and The Drabble. You can also check out his blog to see more:


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