A Fluffy Tailed Demon Ran Up My Pants

Portrait of a red squirrel, with its ears pointed straight-up and staring directly at the camera
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Growing up, the room I shared with my brother could best be described as a post-apocalyptic landscape of continuous fraternal combat. We lived amidst a floor strewn with toys, blocks, dirty clothes, stuffed animals, and random childhood detritus while producing tremendous volumes of noise. No longer able to tolerate the intolerable, my parents decided it was time for us to have our own quarters. I would like to believe that the decision was an acknowledgment of my maturity, as I was closing in on my twelfth birthday, but at the heart of this momentous decision was my parents’ desire to preserve their sanity. They established a demilitarized zone with a ceiling and staircase to bring peace to our household.

At the time, we lived in a historic house in a small, suburban town in New Jersey. The house is situated at the top of a hill in an area ripe for gentrification. A dental practice with a small parking lot, towering trees, and a high chain-link fence is on one side. A narrow driveway divides our property from the neighbors on the other side. Behind the house, a tiny patio and postage stamp lawn drop off into scrub brush woods ending in the backyards of the homes at the bottom of the hill. It is perfect for suburban wildlife as squirrels, raccoons, cats, and other animals travel through the neighborhood with little interference to pillage bird feeders and trash cans. It also works quite well for the neighborhood kids who use the “woods” for adventures and misbehavior.

One feature of the house is its sizeable third-floor attic partially converted into a living space. The area is seldom used for more than storage because it lacks heating. My brother and I play up there occasionally because it is carpeted and has several giant closets ideal for hiding and rummaging. The attic covers the entire width and breadth of the house, creating an enormous space with sloped ceilings that mirror the gambrel roof. Three windows adorn each end of the room, creating a nice cross-breeze when the wind is right.

The heating project starts in the Spring so that it is warm enough to work in the attic, and the house will not get too cold if the boiler system needs to be shut down. Fate smiles on the project when we discover a discarded radiator set out for the town’s semi-annual junk collection day. Dad grabs our battered, yellow wheelbarrow, and the two of us trundle down the street to collect our bounty. Once Mom completes stripping the old paint from the radiator, my father starts construction.

An old household steam radiator against a gray wall
Photo by Alex Perz on Unsplash

DIY work is a required skill set in my family. My uncle is a master home improvement craftsman, while my Dad and I have never shied away from a home or car project. When not working with college students, my Dad picked up extra money helping a local flooring contractor or assisting with the rehabilitation of church buildings. He developed various skills, including a good bit of plumbing expertise, so the attic project is neither daunting nor challenging.

Dad selects a space for the new radiator, cuts a hole in the wall from the ceiling to the floor, and then bores through the subfloor to allow an iron pipe to travel down to the basement. With a full-time job, family, and earning a few extra dollars on the side, the project plods along for a couple of weeks. The weather is cooperative, so rushing is not essential. I am excited and looking forward to my new, expansive, pre-teen pad.

When the attic was initially renovated, the traditional “trap door” access was replaced with a staircase and boxed in. A beige vinyl accordion door serves as the entrance. One afternoon, I returned home from school and discovered a handwritten note. The instructions, scrawled in blue felt tip across a sheet of notebook paper, are very specific, “DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR — LIVE SQUIRREL!”

You can imagine my interest in the prospect of a squirrel in the attic. As I consider whether I should verify the sign’s accuracy for myself, my mother and brother join me in the upstairs hallway. With little information, the three of us offer theories about the squirrel, its arrival, and what to do about it. At some point in the conversation, it is suggested that Officer Panini, who lives nearby, come over and shoot the squirrel. My mother is horrified at this suggestion because everything you need to know about portly Officer Panini is summed up by his practice of cutting the trigger finger out of his gloves.

Having completed a trip to the plumbing supply store, my father arrives home to contemplate the next steps for rodent removal. Long before Clark Griswold suggests catching a squirrel in his Santa jacket, my father decides to use an old couch throw to trap and remove our uninvited guest. The plan is straightforward. Dad chases the squirrel, corners it, and then uses the blanket to gently remove the animal to the woods. My mother and brother are to block the stairs to prevent squirrel access to the rest of the house. I am to be positioned in front of the gaping radiator hole. My Dad figures the critter chewed through the roof and used the construction access to enter the main room. We don’t want her/him to climb back into the ceiling. The military has a saying that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” and my family was soon to discover the absolute truth of this axiom.

Armed with leather work gloves and a tatty, fringed throw, my father gently opens the door and stealthily starts his entry into the attic. I follow closely behind while my brother and mother bring up the rear. On reaching the top of the steps, a halt is called, and Dad quickly surveys the room to locate our target. He turns slowly with arms spread, holding the faded green throw at the ready. He spots the squirrel seated comfortably on the window sill at the other end of the attic. Despite the sudden appearance of a giant, fringed bat in the attic, the tree rat is utterly nonplussed. Dad motions for me to come up and start moving towards my position. I creep around him and commence commando crawling on elbows and knees towards the radiator work area. In the hushed and exasperated tone of parents wishing to yell but required to whisper, he instructs me to get off the floor, grab one of the cushions from the old couch, and slowly walk to my post. I do as I am told. The squirrel stares without moving.

A bat sits on a white tile seeming to screech with its mouth wide open
Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

Keeping one eye on the animal, I put my back against the soon-to-be-installed radiator and take a two-handed hold on my couch cushion shield. Dad signals for Mom to take her position at the top of the stairs, and Mom orders my younger brother to remain in the stairwell. Dad steps into the middle of the room, eyes narrowed like a gunfighter sizing up his opponent.

Momentous action is often preceded by a second of silence and anticipation. As the family tenses, waiting for Dad’s signal, the squirrel decides nothing good can come from this situation and explodes off the sill at warp speed, headed for the opposite end of the attic. My Dad lunges forward, coming nowhere near the rodent projectile and nearly plowing face-first into the carpet. Mom screams. I yell, pointing out the obvious at the top of my lungs. Noise and movement fill the room.

The squirrel’s trajectory places my mother between it and the southernmost attic windows. Mom ducks and moves away from the staircase to put distance between herself and the tree rat now perched on the sill. The squirrel is breathing heavily, head swiveling erratically, and suffering from a severe case of crazy eyes. With Mom out of the way, my younger brother scoots up the stairs to observe the battle first-hand and add to the chaotic scene. Seeing my brother, the squirrel bolts again, leaping from the window, landing on the floor, and pinballing between the attic wall, couch, and the half-wall boxing the staircase. Mom goes one direction, brother the other, and Dad, blanket flapping, attempts to split the difference and drive the squirrel towards the corner. With little trouble, the squirrel dodges the ground troops and leaps to the high ground on top of the half-wall, where it stops to breathe and reassess.

At this point, everyone is gasping for breath from laughter and exertion. I haven’t moved from my defensive position. Garbed in my well-worn Sears Toughskins jeans and holding onto my shield cushion, all fifty pounds of me stands ready. The panicked squirrel attempts to keep everyone in sight while considering its next move. Dad switches blanket techniques from the “burrito wrap” to tossing the blanket like a fisherman’s net. Mom determines that opening the windows nearest the big trees may save us from having to handle the fluffy-tailed demon. She puts her plan into action as Dad edges closer to the squirrel while trying not to spook it. El Ardilla sits quivering and chittering from her/his elevated position.

Brown squirrel staring at the camera with arms folded across its chest
Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

With windows open and a chilly Spring breeze blowing into the attic, the battle enters its next phase. Dad goes on the offensive casting his makeshift net only to have it sail over the squirrel’s head and into the abyss of the stairwell, where it sinks to the bottom. Rather than bolting for the open windows, the demon squirrel makes a beeline for its original entrance through the radiator hole in the wall.

Before I can react, the squirrel runs up my right leg and climbs the cushion where it stops, confused, just inches from my face. We stare at each other, me in horror, it in surprise. The squirrel’s confusion freezes everyone. In the sudden silence, the fuzzy-tailed demon realizes it has made a terrible mistake and cannot reach its preferred exit. El Ardilla bounces twice like the Roadrunner and shoots down my left leg to the floor. Once more, it pinballs back and forth, dodging my once-again running and yelling family. Dad breaks for the staircase to retrieve the blanket. My brother and Mom stand on the dilapidated couch shouting incomprehensibly.

When Dad reappears at the top of the stairs, the squirrel has once again positioned itself on the window sill. Rather than using the open windows to escape, the squirrel drops to the floor and runs right into the corner. Reflexively Dad tosses the blanket, completely covering the animal. Before the tree rat can extract itself, he/she is gently pinned to the floor, and the corners of the blanket are drawn together to form a small sack. Dad carries an exhausted bag of fluffy-tailed demon outside to the woods, safely releasing it back into the wild. The family adjourns to dinner and commences heavily embellishing the afternoon’s activities on his return.

Dad climbs on the roof to locate and repair El Ardilla’s homemade attic entrance the next day. As he is descending from the upper roof to the porch, the ladder slides, momentarily leaving him hanging by his armpits before losing his hold and plunging to the shingles below. Dad hits feet first and begins rolling toward the roof edge. Flailing, he grabs the rain gutter just long enough to slow his descent before pitching into the bushes in front of the house. With everything but his dignity intact, Dad lays in the landscaping, attempting to regain his composure. El Ardilla has her/his revenge.

I should report that establishing separate rooms did limit our fraternal combat though not to the extent intended by our parents. Our rooms were quieter spaces after the move, but the car, dinner table, living room, yard, and every possible point of contact were subject to ongoing fussing, fighting, and ruckus. It only took another six years to establish sustainable peace.

This story is another installment in my “Semi-true Stories” project chronicling the eccentricities and absurdities of life. If you enjoy these, please follow me or subscribe to my mailing list.

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Skip Lockwood

Writing short stories, dropping truth about running nonprofits, raising kids.