For several minutes, Valerie stared at the light from her bedroom window, watching the light through the blinds stretching across the ceiling. She was trying to remember which direction the window faced, trying to remember which way the sun rose and which way it fell. Her bedside clock read five past seven in static red digits.
The house was mostly silent, only the quiet pathetic whimpering of Charlene from beneath the foot of the bed. Valerie stirred and the dog stirred. Valerie sat up and the grey head of the husky popped up to turn an apprehensive blue eye toward her.
“What day is it?” Valerie asked out loud to no one. Charlene stood up tall, head tilting as she attempted to process the question posed. “Ma?” Her voice echoed through the room and down the short hall.
No response. No movement or noise. The air conditioner kicked on softly with a click. The house was empty. It was seven in the evening. Her bedroom window faced the west, faced the cow pasture, faced the marsh. She remembered that her mother was probably at work, night shift at the bakery. She’d be gone, thankfully, until morning.
How long was I asleep?
As Valerie moved through the house, Charlene kept on her, just behind her heels, furry prowling shadow. Mentally, she attempted to retrace her steps, to recall the sequence of events that led her to sleeping the day away. She remembered Billy asking if she was doing anything Saturday night, knowing damn well that she wouldn’t be. She remembered standing in the Dairy Queen parking lot, lighting up with Bill and Steve and Rachel as the distant booms of an approaching storm rolled across the humid night.
Above, the sound of tiny scampering claws rolled across the ceiling. Squirrels running across the roof. No doubt they originated from the giant oak that stood at the end of the property, overshadowing the little house. Hardly a day went by when Valerie’s mother didn’t worry loudly about “animals having babies in the attic”.
Wandering into the kitchen, the smell of still-wet earth, of mildew, came across through the screen of the opened window. It was the smell of a since-passed rain. Valerie remembered the storm, the sky cracking awful in the middle of the night. There had been a sound of something heavy smashing against the house. The wind pushing, whistling, so violently that it felt as if the whole structure could collapse on itself at any given second. Charlene hid beneath the bed throughout, whimpering softly out of sight as thunder shook the earth.
Now, looking through the small curtained-window over the sink, Valerie looked out at the multitude of broken, moss-encrusted branches littering the yard – pieces of that massive oak. One particularly large arm of the tree lay diagonally across a great swath of grass, stretching almost from the edge of the road to front corner of the house. It was bigger than a truck, certainly bigger than her mother’s little Japanese sedan. Valerie could only imagine what kind of damage a branch of that size could have done if it had landed on the house, if it had landed on a person.
Billy had said something about coming over around eight, meant he’d be here at ten till flipping the lights of his truck on and off until she was ready. It was already half-past seven and she was still dressed in day-old clothes, hair a tangled mess and cheek smeared with drool. She wasn’t so concerned with any of that though, more so with where the day had gone.
With a splash of water against her face and a clean-ish shirt pulled from a pile on her bedroom floor, Valerie readied herself for the night ahead. Ravenous from an entire day without food, she found the leftover Chinese from three days past in the fridge – half a serving of egg foo young and a hard-as-rock block of pork fried rice – and promptly devoured it. The sun was fading fast, long strands of deep orange light stretching across the carpeted hallway.
Valerie stepped outside, locking Charlene behind in the house, much to the dog’s displeasure. Out in the yard, the aftermath of the storm was much more apparent. The yard and the fields beyond were covered in scattered tree parts, blown-over corn stalks, sheets of blown-off roof cover flapping in the breeze. Behind her, Charlene scratched furiously at the sidedoor, crying and yowling.
“Shut up! What the hell is wrong with you?” Something had agitated the dog, more so than usual. She began to bark in high-pitched yelps, pouncing full-bodied against the door. It was then that Valerie caught a whiff of something foul, something powerful enough to override every other scent. Turning toward the yard, toward the large fallen branch, Valerie saw the source of Charlene’s frenzy: the form of a small animal lying motionless beside the massive limb.
With hand over nose and mouth, Valerie slowly approached the splayed and flattened form of the rotting creature at the edge of the property. A squirrel. It had never stood a chance, the impact of its long drop seemingly rupturing its tiny furry body. In the heat of the setting sun, the smell grew worse and worse the closer she got to the small corpse. It wasn’t so terrible though, not much worse than the daily barrage of cow manure that wafted its way across the fields from the dairy.
Valerie moved closer still to the squirrel. She wasn’t sure of her own intentions with the it. At first, when she first saw the outline of the poor creature, her only objective was to grab whatever it was before her idiot dog could make herself sick trying to eat it. Now, standing above the deceased, her nose covered by her shirt, Valerie felt almost guilty. Perhaps if the squirrel had never seen that ancient, decaying tree in her yard, if it had never took the tree for its home, it may have not met such a terrible end.
Behind her, Charlene let loose another drawn-out yowl, audible through the front-facing living room windows. The dog’s icy blue eyes were piercing even from behind the glass, her upward-staring head thrusting back repeatedly. It was as if she was trying to warn Valerie of something, of some impending doom.
Valerie kicked at the small dead animal, tentatively at first, a nudge. The squirrel seemed stiff and hollow, the same as the dead branches beside it. Another nudge, a little stronger, enough to rock the carcass side to side, the stench swelling with its movement. Valerie had accepted the smell though, had embraced it, she held down the waves of revulsion that her body naturally wished to express.
Something about the scene triggered another memory of the night. She saw her mother standing before her, in the pitch black of the night, in middle of the raging storm, swaying erratically side to side as though she were caught in a trance. Her mother held a candle in her hands, preemptively anticipating the loss of power. She was scared. She was standing at the foot of Valerie’s bed, whispering in rapid Spanish, louder and louder until she was practically shouting. Valerie woke from a dead sleep, staring up into her mother’s flame-lit face. She was scared that someone was trying to break into the house. It wasn’t an unusual fear for her mother to have. But with the storm smacking heavy against the windows and the walls, her paranoia had been ratcheted up to its maximum.
Valerie couldn’t remember what happened next, couldn’t remember how the timeline played out between that moment and the moment she awoke in bed, the day disappeared from her. She tried to grab onto that picture of her mother’s face swaying in the candlelight but there was nothing there, nothing to hold on to, just empty black space. Now, there was only the dead squirrel.
This time, she kicked it harder. Valerie kicked the squirrel hard enough to flip it over, exposing the maggoty life squirming inside of its blown-out belly. And with it, the rancid smell of death hit Valerie full force.
But it was more than that.
Within a moment, the squirrel was no longer a squirrel. It was a mass of skinless flesh, it was a writhing collection of a hundred pulsing bodies. And all throughout, the undulating form of a multi-legged insect crawled and traversed through the meat, a seemingly endless body with no head and no tail end. The vision stretched across the ground, covering the yard, covering her feet – for that agonizingly long moment in time, it was all that Valerie could see.
Valerie soon found herself in the yard again, grass beneath her. She had vomited. Breathing heavily, she fell to her knees and hands. Sucking in air, she took in the stench of the dead squirrel and proceeded to heave once more. She watched as more of the days-old, undigested takeout piled beneath her.
“Damn girl, you need to slow down with that day drinking. Night’s only just begun.”
The voice above her sounded so far away, detached from her reality and all others. She spit, dry heaved once more, then began to find her footing. Valerie stood to see Billy Laninga’s truck idling before her. The boy himself sat high above her in the driver’s seat, half-spent cigarette dangling from his lips, a look of equal parts disgust and a restrained smirk on his expression.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
“I’m looking at a girl puking her guts out all over a perfectly innocent yard.”
“Mind your goddamn business, Billy.”
“Maybe learn to handle your liquor a little better.”
“Fuck off, I’m fine.”
“Really doesn’t seem like it.”
“I just…” Valerie turned back to the squirrel. Still turned over. Still wriggling with fresh larvae infestation. “Not feeling the greatest.”
“That ain’t no shit.” Bill squinted into the yard, “That a squirrel? That what made you sick?”
“Yeah…sort of. It just hit me wrong I guess.”
“Poor little city girl.”
“Gladly.” He grinned, white smoke expelling past his teeth. “See that storm knocked a couple of branches down onto your property last night.”
“Yeah, some.” Smartass. “Just lucky the whole fucking tree didn’t fall down with it.” Valerie stood on slightly shaking legs, wiping her mouth with the back of a forearm.
“Now that would have been something to see.” Billy laughed as Valerie climbed in beside him, her left middle finger emphatically raised in his direction.