I don’t know how it happened. I can’t place a date, like, “This is the day we fell out of love”––it’s just that we were in love, and then we weren’t.
Guess it’s bound to happen at some point. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.
I shut the door behind me and heft my two suitcases. Tilly picked the blue one out for me for our honeymoon. I don’t know why I’m taking it; it just makes me think of her. But I guess everything does. The dark gray button-down in the suitcase––it’s the one I wore when I first kissed her. What a day. And the silver tie––she had to help me tie it for a wedding we attended soon after our own. We swayed together on the dance floor like it was our first dance. Man, those were the days.
But those days are gone, and I’m not sure what happened to Tilly, either.
I step off the porch onto the driveway where my beat-up Camry sits. I always told her I’d replace it soon, but we never got the money. Guess I’ll be living on my own money now. Won’t have to funnel any of it to her. Maybe I can finally get that truck I always wanted.
But it’ll feel empty without Tilly riding there with me.
Shaking my head, I unlock the car and throw my suitcases in the back. Guess I’ll rent a hotel or somethin’. All I know is I gotta get out of here. We’ve gotta have some space, at least for a few days.
Or maybe longer than that. Maybe I’ll never come back. It’d be better that way. She deserves a better man than the one she married.
You should say goodbye.
Nah. We’d just fight more. God, I’m sick of fighting.
I shut the door on the suitcases that contain my life and wrack my brain for anything I’ve missed. Toiletries––got ’em. Snacks––all there. My gun––
Aw, man, forgot that. Guess I gotta go back inside. As long as I get outta here before Tilly gets back from her ladies’ group thing, I’ll be good.
I turn back toward the house when I hear, “So this is why I was summoned.”
My keys fall from my hands and clatter against the concrete. I whirl around, searching for any sign of life, and jump back when I see the squirrel chillin’ not a foot away from me. When’d he get there? Stupid lil creature. Wish I had my gun. Why isn’t it movin’? Aren’t they supposed to be ’fraid of humans?
Its beady eyes blink at me, then focus on my keys. What the . . . ? Man, I hate animals. Only thing I wanna do is eat ’em. Tilly always says I’m cruel and heartless. I dunno, but animals freak me out.
I bend down and reach for my keys, but the squirrel’s tiny paw darts out and snatches them away. Swearing, I swing a booted foot toward the creature. It skitters backward but stays oddly close to me.
“Those are mine!” I lunge for the keys, half-expecting the squirrel to bite me or somethin’––could have rabies. But it turns, metal clanking against metal, and smacks its tail against my hand––not hard enough to hurt but almost like a taunt.
“You little––” I mutter curses Tilly would hate. “I need those!”
I glare at the squirrel, expecting it to look away, but its stare is unwavering. My stupid gun! I’d go get it right now and shoot the squirrel dead if not for the fear that the rodent’s gonna run off with my keys. Of all the dumb things to happen.
“Look, you stupid vermin. I’m leavin’ and never comin’ back. Gimme the keys, and you won’t have to worry about this ugly mug no more. How ’bout that?”
I’m talking to a squirrel. What is wrong with me?
“Just as I suspected.”
The voice is coming from the squirrel––the stupid vermin whose brains I wanna blast out with my shotgun. There’s no way. I look around, trying to find some other plausible source for the voice.
“It’s rude to look away when others are speaking.”
The voice is high and squeaky, like you’d expect from a squirrel. If you thought squirrels could talk, that is.
“Unless things are different for you humans. I wouldn’t know. I don’t want to insult your culture by any means. My apologies if I’ve offended you.”
Humans. Oh, God. It can’t be the squirrel. My mouth hangs so wide that the dumb squirrel could stroll right in, no problem.
“You can hear me, correct?”
The squirrel looks like it’s frowning. But squirrels can’t frown. My mind is playin’ tricks on me.
“I was told you’d be able to. All animals who pledge life debts become bonded to that human.”
“Life debts?” I blurt.
A tremor vibrates the squirrel’s tail. “Excellent. You do understand me. Now, let’s get on to business. I am Oswald. And you are . . . ?”
I can’t think. Minutes ago, I was rarin’ to go, and now a talking squirrel stole my keys. If that ain’t the strangest thing, I don’t know what is.
“I know you can speak,” Oswald says. “You were being quite rude to me earlier. Now won’t you tell me your name?”
He’s still danglin’ those keys, taunting me. That’s all I want. My keys––my ticket outta here. No more fightin’ with Tilly.
Funny thing is, you marry a girl, think she’s the prettiest thing to walk the earth, love hearin’ that laugh, wanna wake up next to her every mornin’. But at some point, she starts lookin’ worse and worse to your eyes ’til you can’t even see the girl you married. That laugh grinds your ears to shreds, and you can’t stand to see that droolin’ face next to you in the bed, so you get out of there quick as you can.
You get out of the marriage quick as you can, too.
“I just want my keys,” I say. When’s she supposed to get back from that thing? Noon? I’ve only got fifteen minutes. Crap, where’d the time go? Stupid squirrel!
“Your keys will be returned; do not worry, my noble master.” The squirrel freakin’ bows.
“What’s with the master stuff, life debts and crap?”
“Oh. Of course. But first, your name.” He extends his empty paw––the one not holding the keys––like I’m about to literally hand somethin’ over.
Why do I wanna know this dumb squirrel’s story? Right. My keys. The thing could scurry into the wilderness and never return. This is my best shot at getting them back. Better play along. “Jake,” I mutter.
“Jake. Splendid name,” Oswald says. “Now, onto the explanation. Approximately four moons ago, you were driving in your car along a narrow road. I had seen something of great importance on the other side and thought I could make it before your car passed me. Alas, you were right upon me in the middle of the road. There was nothing I could do. My life was over.”
Oh, God. Now he’s gonna say I hit him, and he came back to life.
“But miraculously, gloriously, joyously––”
“Get on with it. I don’t have all day.” Tilly’s gonna get home from her girls’ outing soon, and I need to be outta here.
“Yes, yes, my apologies.” Oswald peers up at me with an eerie squirrel-smile. “You swerved, my good human. You swerved, sparing my life.”
Me, swerve to avoid a squirrel? I almost laugh. I’d never––
Wait. I remember Tilly and me in the car, fightin’ and all that, and then there was this squirrel dartin’ across the road, and Tilly screamed, “Jake!” and I jerked to the side, just missin’ the creature. It hadn’t made her like me any more. We still fought the whole way home.
Wait. Is the dumb beast sayin’ he’s that squirrel?
“I’m done with this crap,” I say. “Be a good squirrel”––like that’s even a thing––“and gimme the keys.” I don’t even know why I listened to him. I’m just stressed and crazy from Tilly.
“So impatient.” Oswald shakes his furry head.
He’s such an ugly creature––beady little eyes and gray-brown fur and ever-twitching nose. He gives me a headache just from lookin’. He never stands still. And he’s still got my keys. My shotgun would sure be nice right about now.
Tilly would think the thing was adorable. She always had loved animals. She kept beggin’ and beggin’ for a pet. Now she can get one of her own since I won’t be in the way anymore.
“I pledged my life to you, Jake,” Oswald says. “Because of that, I now have the ability to feel the coming of your darkest hour. Now is that time.”
This? Tilly and me splittin’ up? It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just a marriage that never should’ve happened. It would’ve fallen apart eventually. Besides, the whole “darkest hour” thing is some of the weirdest crap I’ve ever heard.
I laugh. “You seriously need to chill, squirrel.”
“Jake. You need to be serious about this.” Oswald taps his tiny foot against the concrete. I swear, it’s like he’s scowling at me. “You are on the brink of––I assume––losing your marriage since you are leaving your house. Any little ones?”
I shake my head vigorously. It’s only been a year. Nothin’ like that yet. But I’d thought . . . at one point . . . maybe . . .
“But you are leaving your wife.”
I glower at him. “What do you care? You’re a freakin’ squirrel.”
“And you’re an ignorant human.”
Okay, my mind couldn’t have come up with that angry squirrel-face. I’m not smart enough. “Look, squirrel––”
“––what am I gonna have to do to get my keys back?” That’s all I need. Then this trippy experience will be over.
“Reunite with your wife.”
I burst out laughing. “Me and Tilly are never gonna work out, squirrel. We just don’t love each other anymore, and that’s that.”
“Then you have to make her love you again,” Oswald says. “How about some acorns? Females adore them.”
“Oh, yes, human customs are different. Hm.” He pauses. “What did you love about her?”
“What? I––” What is with this squirrel? “I don’t know. Can’t you just give me my keys and get out of here?”
“Surely you must have loved something about her. Why would you have married her?”
“That was a long time ago.” Only a year, but a lot can change in a year.
“You need to remember.”
Those eyes are freakin’ me out, like they’re starin’ into my soul. I can’t think about anything but this squirrel and how messed up this whole thing is. “We both changed, okay? It’s better for us to just separate.”
A car rumbles up the street. Tilly’s little red car. I’m too late. “You were just trying to stall me!”
I mutter as many swears as I can think of, then glance at the loaded car. Crap. I was supposed to be gone by now. Freakin’ squirrel. “Get out of here,” I hiss. “You want her to think I’m crazy?” Not that I care what she thinks. Not anymore.
“Oh, she won’t be able to hear me. Only you can. We are bonded now.”
“Great.” A squirrel slave. What good is a squirrel? It can’t do nothin’.
Tilly pulls into the driveway. Oswald scurries toward me and leaps onto my leg. His claws dig into my jeans as he climbs up my body. I swear, trying to bat him away, but he perches on my shoulder. What is wrong with this squirrel?
Wait. He left the keys on the ground. This is my shot.
No. Not yet. The gun. Still gotta get the gun.
Tilly gets out of the car. Oh, God, she’s so pretty. She’s wearing makeup for once, and she’s got her hair styled, is wearin’ a nice summery dress that bares her legs. They’re not as shapely as they used to be, but still . . .
Stop staring. Now is not the time. You’re getting away from her, remember?
But instead, I’m remembering when we used to make love to each other, when each other’s bodies were fresh and new, when every kiss had meaning. I close my eyes and try to keep from trembling. Keep it together. Don’t think about––
Her lips, rosy and full, sweet and satisfying. I could drink from them all day long and never get tired.
Or, I used to be able to. Now, we give dutiful pecks. What happened? Oh, God, what happened?
“Jake,” she says. “What are . . . ? You have . . . ?”
“Hi.” I shove my hands in my pockets. All my stuff’s in the car. She’ll look inside and see. We’ll fight. No more fighting, please.
“There’s something about her . . . ,” Oswald murmurs in my ear, almost making me pee my pants.
“Gimme a warning,” I mutter.
“Jake?” Tilly’s starin’ at me with her wide brown eyes. I don’t know the last time she looked at me without bein’ angry. “What’s the . . . ?” She points at my shoulder.
“Oh! This.” I glance over at Oswald. Whoa, his eyes are even beadier up close. “This is . . . for you.”
“What?” Oswald screeches in my ear.
“I know you always wanted a pet. I know it’s not your traditional pet, but . . .” Clearly the squirrel is not a normal squirrel. He’d love Tilly.
“You can’t just get rid of me!” Oswald says.
Tilly’s not smiling. She’s staring at the squirrel. Man, I try to give her somethin’ for once, and she hates it. Go figure.
“Did it just . . . ?” She cocks her head.
Oswald sucks in a breath––right next to my ear, so it’s crazy loud. “Can she understand me?”
“It’s talking.” She presses a hand to her rose-lipped mouth. “The squirrel is talking.”
So I’m not crazy after all. That’s a relief.
“You’re not supposed to be able to understand me,” Oswald says. “He should be the only one who can understand me. He’s the one to whom I owe my life debt. He’s the one who swerved the car.”
“What . . . ?” Tilly looks at me helplessly. Oh, God, it’s been forever since she looked at me like that––wantin’ me to solve her problem. “How?” she says. “How can I understand it?”
“Ask him.” I point at Oswald, still perched on my shoulder.
“But he’s a . . .”
“Yes, I’m a squirrel.”
I never thought a squirrel could sound distressed. Then again, I never thought a squirrel could talk, either. But this squirrel sounds like he’s gonna have a panic attack right on my shoulder.
“I don’t understand. I’m only supposed to bond to one master. Why would I––?”
My eyes widen. “Tilly made me swerve.”
“What?” She’s looking from me to the squirrel.
“Okay, squirrel, let’s say you’re right about this whole thing. You said you swore a life debt to me ’cause I swerved the car. But she’s the one who made me do it. Believe me, I would’ve ran you over.”
“What are you talking about, Jake?” Tilly asks.
“This is so strange.” Oswald’s tail brushes against my neck as his body spasms.
Man, that tickles. But seriously, is the thing gonna die? Or is this a for-real squirrel panic attack?
“But it makes sense––but I don’t know how. An animal bonded to two masters.” He pauses. “I feel so very––odd. Like I’m torn between two great forces, and I’m going to be torn apart––”
“Stop being overdramatic,” I say.
“Oh, don’t hurt the poor thing’s feelings!”
Now Tilly’s frowning at me. What did I do this time?
“My name is Oswald,” the squirrel says, still twitching.
“Such a nice, formal name.” She pauses. “Can I call you Ozzy?”
“Well . . . I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that before. But I suppose . . .”
“Good.” She grins.
I haven’t seen her grin in forever. It makes me think of when I first saw her––walkin’ across campus, laughin’ with her friends. I wanted to memorize her grin.
“I’m Matilda, but everyone calls me Tilly.”
“Matilda. What a lovely name.”
I used to think so too. Now it sounds formal, stilted, like our marriage has become. Even “Tilly” seems irritating.
“Can I hold him?” Tilly asks, slowly, shyly.
“I’m not a pet to be ‘held,’” Oswald says.
Tilly glances at me. She’s got that cute little frown, the one I used to love. I’d tease her all the time just so I could see that frown.
When’s the last time I teased her?
“But he said––”
“I was lyin’,” I said. “The squirrel just showed up and started talkin’ to me. Then you showed up. What was I supposed to say?”
“I don’t know.” Tilly cocks her head. “I don’t understand, still.”
I sigh. “Me neither, Tilly.” Man. I think that was the first time I’ve agreed with her in . . . months. And it’s over a freakin’ squirrel.
Oswald hops off my shoulder and lands expertly on the ground. I half-expect him to grab my keys, but he just goes over to Tilly and waits. “Your arm, please?” he says.
What? He’s not gonna claw his way up onto her shoulder? Guess he gives her more courtesy than he gave me.
Her cheeks flushing, she reaches her arm toward the ground. Oswald climbs onto it, and she giggles. “That tickles!”
Hey. I wanna make her laugh like that. Get away from her, squirrel.
Oswald now is perched on my wife’s shoulder, explaining the life debt to her. She looks so serious, so concerned for him. She doesn’t have half as much trouble believing it as I do. She’s always had this––innocence, I guess, this willingness to believe in the impossible. I bet she could soar to the stars if she wanted to.
I just drag her down.
“This is incredible,” Tilly says. “I had no idea––Are all animals like this?”
“Indeed,” Oswald says. “We are a loyal sort.”
She’s treating the squirrel with such kindness, such sweetness. I always did love the way she cared for things––people, animals, anything that needed nurturing. She would’ve made a great momma. I swallow hard.
But her kids don’t need a father like you. They need someone better.
“Would you––?” Tilly looks down, biting her lip. Heat pulses through my body. She’s doing this for a squirrel. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like––for a squirrel to burrow in my hair.”
Seriously? Her pretty curled hair infested with this vermin? She could get lice or rabies or somethin’.
“Oh. I suppose I could.”
Stupid squirrel! Don’t you dare infect my wife––
Oswald burrows in her hair, making a nest of her curls, and she’s laughing. There’s a bit of harshness that marriage added to her laugh, but there’s also that light, airy sound I fell in love with.
“How do I look, Jake?” She strikes a pose.
She hasn’t been this silly, this carefree, since I don’t know when. And it looks good. My throat is too dry for me to speak. Her eyes dim. No, no! It’s not that––I just––
I wanna kiss her. Which is not the thing to do right now. Or ever.
“So, Ozzy.” Tilly pauses. “You said you could sense our darkest hour, and that was when you would come. Why . . . why now? Do you know something that’s going to happen?” Her hands are trembling. Oh, no. This is what I wanted to avoid. Seeing her upset––
Oswald crawls out of Tilly’s hair and settles on her shoulder. “I would ask your husband if I were you.”
Her eyes snap to me. I would’ve done anything for those big brown eyes. “What is he saying, Jake?”
“I . . .” I look away, unable to meet her gaze. Oh. The keys. I bend and grab them before Oswald takes them again. Finally back in my possession.
When I look back, she’s looking at the car. She sees what’s behind the windows. She sees the suitcases. This is exactly what I wanted to avoid. If only that stupid squirrel––
“Jake . . . ?” She presses a hand to her mouth. “You were leaving. Without saying goodbye.”
There’s nothing I can say. Nothing to make this better. I swallow hard. “I . . .”
Oh, no. I hate it when she cries. And it’s worse ’cause I’m the one who caused it. I’m an awful husband. Good thing she’s gettin’ away from me.
“I’m sorry, Tilly,” I say. “I didn’t want it to be this way, but––it’s better for you if I––”
“Don’t say it, Jacob. Don’t you dare.” The tears spill onto her cheeks.
“You can have the squirrel,” I say through the lump in my throat.
“Excuse you; I am not an object to be given.” Oswald hops down from Tilly’s shoulder and lands on the concrete. “And this is not the way––”
“Shut it, squirrel.”
Tilly has crumpled into a ball. I wanna hold her, strengthen her with a touch, but I can’t. Anything I touch seems to wither.
“I left most everything for you, Tilly. I think we just need a break––”
“You know this won’t just be a break.” She shakes her head, stirring her now-tangled hair.
I know. All the feelings are coming––if only I just couldn’t feel anything! If only––
“If you leave, Jake,” Oswald says, “then I die.”
I snap my head toward Oswald. “What did you say?”
“If my master’s darkest hour comes to pass––in this case, the darkest hour for both my masters––then I have failed. I will die.”
“Well, you’re fine. This isn’t our darkest hour.”
“Yes, it is.” Oswald looks at me intently. “You know this, Jake. You know this will change the course of your life.”
The course of my life. The one I’m havin’ or the one I wanted? The one I wanted was a happy one, one where I got to love my Tilly. It might’ve included a few kids––preferably with her features ’cause they don’t want mine––and their momma would’ve loved them to pieces. I would’ve too. The thought of havin’ a little baby girl . . .
But that life is just a dream. This is the one I’m stuck with, and I can’t live in this anymore.
But what if . . . what if I could change it? What if I could fall in love with Tilly again? What if we could start over?
No. It’s impossible. It’s just gonna fail, and we’re gonna fight more and more and tear each other apart. We’re gonna hate the sight of each other, gonna turn our kids against each other. It’s better if I leave now.
Oh, no, Tilly is crying more. I’ve gotta get out of here before I take her in my arms and try to soothe her. This is not what I need right now. I need a clean break. Why couldn’t that stupid squirrel have stayed out of my life?
“Why did you swear that stupid oath?” I glare at Oswald. “I don’t want that kind of responsibility!”
“We all need to learn to take responsibility for our actions, Jake.”
“Yeah, but––” I huff. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for a squirrel-slave––”
“I am not your slave, human.”
“Whatever you are. I didn’t want this. I just want to live my life.”
“But here you are, Jake. What will you choose?”
Freedom, a chance to start over, a life where I won’t hurt Tilly anymore. Fights, dreary days, hurting Tilly––but then also her smile, her laugh, her kiss, her passion.
I close my eyes and clench my fists. It’s not fair. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. I wasn’t supposed to have to make this kind of choice.
When I open my eyes, I see Tilly. Her hair is now rumpled, and her tears have smudged her makeup. She’s not the beautiful girl I fell in love with.
Or is she?
Maybe her laugh is more strained. Maybe she’s put on a little weight. Maybe she’s not as carefree or as spontaneous. But she’s still Tilly.
And yes, she cries at everything and can’t stand the sight of blood and faints when she sees a dead animal, but that’s just who she is. Maybe I can love that part of her too. Everything I say seems to hurt her, but maybe that’s not her fault.
Maybe it’s mine.
“If you go––” Her voice breaks. “I won’t stop you.”
If I go, I’m never coming back. And suddenly, the thought of life without Tilly makes my breath seize in my chest. Life is difficult with her, but life is boring without her. And if I try harder––if I become a better man––if I love her better––then maybe, it’ll be a good life, too.
Not a perfect one. Not the one I always imagined. But maybe somethin’ better than that.
I step toward her. Her eyes widen like she expects me to hit her or somethin’. But I just stop in front of her. “Can we start over?” I say.
Her mouth parts. I wanna kiss her so badly, right then and there, but I force myself to wait.
“I screwed up. I haven’t been the husband you deserve. But I’m gonna be better. God help me, I’ll be a better man. For you. Because I love you.”
More tears pour down her cheeks.
“I was tryin’ to run away. But I don’t wanna run away anymore. I wanna fight for you.” I grab her hands. She doesn’t pull away. “If you’ll have me––if you’ll have a selfish idiot––then please. Let me love you, Tilly.”
Her head bobs up and down, and then she kisses me––sudden, unexpected, and glorious. Not just a peck. Not just a good morning or goodbye kiss. A real kiss. I let go of her hands to slip my arms around her waist––thicker than it used to be, but I don’t care. My Tilly. How could I ever have thought of running away from her?
“I’m right here,” Oswald says.
Tilly pulls back, blushin’ all cute and innocent. I don’t care. I would’ve just gone right on smoochin’. Who cares what a squirrel thinks?
“You happy now, Ozzy?” I say.
“Immensely,” Oswald says. “I’m not going to die. That puts a shiver right through my tail.”
“Good.” I kiss my wife again, right there in the middle of the driveway. My suitcases are in my car, my keys in my pocket. but I’m not gonna use ’em today. Not anymore.
I’m stayin’ right here.
This has to be one of the strangest stories I’ve ever written, but it’s also one of my favorites. I mean, just look at Oswald. Plus, discovering Jake’s redemption was such so encouraging. He’s got a long way to go, but I have hope for him.
Also, I have actually experienced a squirrel nesting in my hair. It was fantastic.
If you want to see a different interpretation of the prompt, check out my friend Laura’s post.
So, what about you? Can you come up with a story, five sentences or less, based on this prompt? Leave it in the comments!