Everyone in the house knew they were squirrels, except KT, who was sure with the conviction of an irrational mind further tainted from years of heavy drug use, that there were people – little people – living in the attic. They started coming in after Tommy, KT’s boyfriend, hired some buddies to repair the fire damage to the roof and pocketed the leftover cash from KT’s mother. The buddies did about as good a job as one would expect a couple meth freaks to do: meticulous and unfinished, which meant there were chinks the squirrels started exploiting.
KT figured they were little people after she got high and watched a movie the kids had rented about little people that lived in the walls of an old house and stole things. It was a logical connection for her: lots of KT’s things came up missing all the time. Jewelry. Money. Cigarettes. That, plus the noise of them scurrying around, and the voices she was sure she heard was just about all the proof she needed.
Just about. KT had the sense not to tell anybody about her theory until she had proof – except Tommy, whose response was his usual grunt – so she traded for a video camera from a tweaker and set it up in the attic. She left the house, sure she was going to be vindicated. Tommy waited until she was gone, went up to the attic and got the camera, and took it to a pawnshop in town. He used the cash to go on a bender. When KT got back to the house and found the camera missing, she ran outside and refused to return.
When Joey, KT’s youngest, and his big sister Chyna got home from school, their mother was waiting m at the bus stop, chain smoking and shaking.
“You seen anything in the attic?” she asked.
“Squirrels?” Joey said.
“No,” she shook her head vehemently. “Ain’t god damned squirrels.”
Chyna grabbed Joey’s hand and pulled him towards home.
“What is it?” Joey asked, pulling against his sister to hear his mother out.
KT looked around and leaned in towards her son. “These little fuckers. Don’t know how big they are. Tried to film ‘em, but they stole the camera.”
Joey laughed, but Chyna jerked him away, hard. They could hear KT, still talking, as they walked down the road.
“It’s not funny,” Chyna said, when they couldn’t hear her anymore. “We never should’ve let them back in the house after that fire. Grandmother said it was our decision, but you wanted her back.”
Joey was quiet. “Maybe she’s just confused,” he said.
“Yeah,” Chyna said. “May-be.”
KT didn’t come home for supper, so Joey took a bowl of mac & cheese and headed for the door.
“Be careful,” Chyna said, making him jump – he’d thought she was in the bathroom and wouldn’t see him leave. “She’s not right.” Joey nodded, and Chyna pointed to her head. “She’s not right in the head.”
Joey went outside and called, but his mother didn’t respond. He walked up the road and found her still at the bus stop. She was lying on the ground near the entrance gate and the sign that said Hunter’s Rest. He started to nudge her to wake her, but thought maybe she needed the sleep, so he set the bowl down beside her. He watched her sleep for a moment, but she didn’t move or anything. He was pretty sure she was breathing, so he went back home and played cards with his sister.
The kids saw KT still sleeping on their way to the bus stop. When the bus came, Chyna got on quick, but Joey saw his mother sit up and wave at him. He pointed at the bowl beside her, and she dug her fingers in and ate some. He watched through the bus window as she gummed it, sitting cross-legged, until the bus pulled away.
When they got off the bus that afternoon, she wasn’t there.
“Thank God,” Chyna said.
When they got home, she wasn’t there, either.
“Should we look for her?” Joey asked.
“What if something’s wrong with her?”
Chyna turned furious eyes on her brother. “She’s a grown ass woman afraid to come in the house because there’s little people in the attic. Of course something’s wrong with her.”
Joey went quiet, and Chyna let him sulk for a good hour until she grabbed him and went looking.
They found KT sitting by the lake, watching the water. She smiled when they came up. There was grass and plant stems that might once have been flowers, if you were kind, in her hair. They didn’t know what to do so they sat beside her.
“Mom used to bring me fishing out here all the time when I was little,” KT said, finally. “We’d sit in a boat with a little umbrella like we was in some movie. We couldn’t talk – momma would slap me right in the mouth if I made any noise at all. So we’d just sit there.” She smiled and Joey smiled to see it.
“Your daddy used to take you fishing out here, Chyna. You remember?”
“Yes ma’am,” Chyna said. “He was always drunk.”
“He was.” KT laughed. “He’d get mad and cuss the fish for not biting. Nothing was going to bite, though. The water’s too polluted. He’d bring his gun and threaten to shoot anything he saw, but he never saw nothing.” She laughed again and Chyna laughed too, despite herself. They lapsed into silence until Joey spoke.
“They’re just squirrels, mom,” he said.
“Hmm?” she said, still lost in reverie.
“In the attic. It’s just squirrels coming in.”
KT nodded and Joey and Chyna exchanged relieved looks.
KT put her left arm around Joey and her right around Chyna and pulled them close. “That’s what they want you to think,” she said.
Once he realized she wasn’t going to get eaten by a bear or anything, Joey actually thought it was kind of nice. Over the course of the next few days, Tommy was gone, which eased up the tension around the house. Every morning, KT was there to greet him as he got on the bus. He’d bring her food, and when he got off the bus after school, she’d greet him and give him the dirty dish so he could take it home and wash it. In the evenings, he’d find her wherever she’d wandered off to. She refused to come near the house, but she wouldn’t actually leave the Hunter’s Rest neighborhood.
Chyna was embarrassed, of course, but even she had to admit it was nice in the evenings, just the two of them. Until a neighbor showed up to knock timidly at the door and complain.
“She’s just walking around,” Chyna said.
“She slept on my doorstep last night,” the woman said. She was a heavyset, squat women Chyna had always thought had kind eyes.
“She thinks—“ Joey started to say, but Chyna nudged him.
“I’m really sorry,” Chyna said. “She’s been sleepwalking lately.”
“I just opened the door, and she was lying there like a…like a cat…” The woman played with the hem of her tee-shirt with nervous eyes.
“I’ll talk to her.” Chyna smiled. “Thank you,” she added.
The woman looked from Chyna to her brother and back. “Are you kids doing okay?” she asked in a serious voice.
“Yes ma’am,” Chyna said. “Joey’s on the Honor Roll this term.”
“Well congratulations, young man.” She smiled at him. She looked at each of the kids again and then turned to go, but paused. “I don’t mind her visiting, you understand, I’m just concerned.”
“We understand,” Chyna said. “Thank you.”
“And you kids, if you ever want to visit, come on by.”
“Thank you,” the kids said in unison.
The woman left and Chyna closed the door.
Tommy came back after the third or fourth day. He went straight to bed and didn’t emerge until the next day. “The hell is KT?” he asked when he saw the kids.
“Shit,” Tommy said. “Well go get her. I need something.”
“She won’t come inside the house,” Chyna said. “The neighbors are complaining about it.”
“Hell with the neighbors,” Tommy said. “They call the law?”
“Not yet,” Chyna said. “But one of them came to the door about it.”
“Shit,” he said again.
When the kids got home from school, Tommy was there along with a different car in the yard. Inside, they heard pounding and all sorts of racket coming from the roof. Later, Tommy came in with one of his buddies and went back into Tommy and KT’s bedroom. The kids heard them laughing and listening to music late into the night. The next morning, as the kids were eating breakfast, Tommy came out.
“Tell your momma I got rid of the squirrels.”
“She doesn’t believe they’re squirrels,” Joey said.
“Well whatever the shit she thinks, I got rid of ‘em,” Tommy said. He stomped out. They heard his El Camino thunder to life and the tires squeal. A little while later, Tommy’s friend emerged from Tommy and KT’s bedroom. He stood in the hallway for a long time while Chyna and Joey finished their cereal and washed their dishes, and then he came and sat at the table.
“Would you like some cereal?” Chyna asked.
He waved the offer away, obviously disgusted at the thought of food. Chyna put their dishes away, grabbed Joey’s hand, and led him outside while Joey watched the man stare at the countertop as though he saw something other than green Formica.
At the bus stop, KT was waiting with a crooked smile. Her clothes were muddy and damp. She smelled like the trash at the bottom of the can.
“We’re almost out of cereal,” Chyna said to her.
"Well go get some,” KT said. “You got a job.”
Chyna was quiet and wouldn’t look at KT anymore.
“Tommy got rid of the people,” Joey said.
KT turned her weird smile on him. “How’d he do that?”
Joey glanced at Chyna, but he was on his own. “He hired a guy to help him clear them up. And he fixed the roof so they can’t get back in. He’s still there, the guy.”
“Is he?” KT said. She looked towards the house. The bus pulled up and Chyna took Joey’s hand and led him on board. KT winked at him as the bus pulled away.
When they got off after school, KT wasn’t there. Joey felt a little tightness in his belly that only got worse as they walked down the drive to their house. Inside, they could hear music from the master bedroom. After a while, KT came out. She was wearing clean clothes and didn’t smell anymore. They both watched her, but she just went to the fridge and got something out. Tommy came behind her and rubbed himself against her. She turned to kiss him. The kids looked away.
“This place is a pigsty,” Tommy said to Chyna. “Y’all kids get busy and clean up.”
Joey put away his homework and he and Chyna started cleaning. When Tommy and KT went back into their bedroom, Joey watched his sister for a reaction.
“Nice while it lasted,” was all she said.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe/. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writer's Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.