Officials with the sheriff’s office advise residents to avoid the squirrels at all costs. Keep pets and small children inside. Wear pants that taper down past the ankle, thick socks, and sleeves that taper down past the wrist. Avoid taking food and drinks outside, and make sure garbage can lids have been secured.
For the past few weeks, the advice from Kent Brockington, New Haven’s News of the Morning news anchor, had stayed consistent. From five until nine, every hour at the top of the hour, he repeated his warning. Every morning, Liv followed his advice to the letter, all except the part about the kids.
Liv stood up and grabbed her tennis racket. She checked the arms of her hoodie, which were secured where her thumbs emerged through holes in the sleeves, the tips of her fingers peeking out. The legs of her pants were tucked into her denim high tops. Over her head, she wore a beekeeper’s mask, just to be safe. With a quick look in the hallway mirror, she convinced herself she was set.
Liv freed her hand from her sleeve just long enough to pull out the key she kept on a purple cord around her wrist. She locked the door and set out on her usual weekday path.
As she walked, she kept her eyes open for squirrels. You never could tell when they would strike.
She stopped outside her friend Johann’s house and waited. When she looked back, she could still see her house at the end of the block, its metal roof dully gleaming in the sun, the rust cascades down the walls resembled streaks of blood. She looked back to Johann’s house, with its flaking grey paint and overwhelming smell of cats. She never did see an actual puss at Johann’s house, but then his mother was usually screaming loud enough to scare the birds out of the trees. Today was no exception.
Johann appeared with his little brother in tow, Sammy. They was fleeing from their mother, who was now standing in the doorway shaking her fist at them. “I don’t want to talk about it,” was all he would say when Liv opened her mouth to ask him about it. They walked in silence for the next three blocks while the paint on the houses grew brighter as they drew nearer to the school.
Liv worried about Johann and Sammy. Their sleeves and pants legs never seemed long enough, and their canvas sneakers were being held together with duct tape. The only weapon either carried was Sammy’s clear, plastic umbrella. Their mother had no excuse for letting them walk to school; she didn’t have to work long hours at the orange juice plant that blanketed the town in the scent of burnt oranges year round. Still, there wasn’t much Liv could do. Johann punched her in the arm the only time she tried to loan him one of her sweatshirts, so hard it hurt.
The trio were maneuvering past a fallen branch in the road when Liv heard her name being called from one of the houses. They turned as a group to face the voice.
“Wait for me. I’m coming with you.”
“Charlie, you’re supposed to be in carpool. Your mom said you couldn’t walk with us any more. You’ll get in trouble,”’ Liv told him.
“I got bit,” the slender, honey-skinned boy replied as he pushed his thick, black-rimmed glasses up to the bridge of his nose. “I’m not taking any chances any more. When Mrs. Johnson drove up, I told her my mom was going to drive me to school, then I waited on the porch for you to come.”
“What do you mean you got bit?” Johann asked, pulling Sammy close.
Charlie pulled up a pants leg and showed the group his bandaged leg, the white gauze tinged green just above his calf. “It happened because Mrs. Johnson was running late and didn’t want to wait in line behind the other cars. She had us get out a block from the school, and one of the munchers got me. She told me that if I told my mom what happened, I’d be in even bigger trouble.”
Liv, Johann, and Sammy looked at him in awe. No one in their circle had been bit before.
“Johnny, does this mean Charlie’s going to become a zombie?” Sammy asked, looking up at his brother, tears welling at the corners of his eyes and a tremble in his voice.
“Of course not.” Johann did not look convinced.
“Zombie bites making zombies is just something that happens in the movies,” Liv said rolling her eyes. Then, she wrapped an arm around Charlie’s shoulder. “Still, you’d better hope your arm doesn’t fall off.”
Charlie pushed Liv away and laughed, but his laugh was short and cut off in a wheeze.
They turned a corner and started to progress down Church Street. They could see the squat, brick buildings of their school with its long line of cars and crossing guards ushering students into safety. It was the space between here and there that was scary. After the next few houses they would have to pass was a stretch of land that was half forest, half swamp, the trees overrun by kudzu; the grass grew up to Liv’s chest in places. It was a no-man’s land. A no-man’s land filled with zombie squirrels.
They paused just before reaching the wilderness and surveyed the situation.
“Charlie, do you have a weapon?” Liv asked, turning to him.
“No,” he mumbled. “My mom wouldn’t let me bring my bat. She said I’d lose it.”
“Okay, Sammy, you take up the rear. Johann, Charlie, come in close to me. Everyone, stay alert! If you see a squirrel, lash out!”
They moved down the sidewalk in a tight cluster until the it disappeared, leaving them with a brown strip of grass to walk on; the grass sloped down into an overgrown ditch filled with algae covered water buzzing with flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. A few of the insects lazily flew up to inspect the traveling huddle.
“Watch your footing,” Liv called out. “We’re almost there.”
Liv could hear the sweep of Sammy’s umbrella through the grass to the side of her. She had her racket at the ready, and she could feel someone behind her as they occasionally stepped on the back of her heel. The world was bright with her exhilaration. She was in charge. She was in control. She was going to get her men to school alive and on time.
When they passed the ditch and wilderness, Liv breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon. It wasn’t until they were a few yards away from the first waiting card and the official school border that they heard a rustling in a nearby bush. The bush was all straight lines and right angles, pruned into submission, but now it was shaking. A moan of a squeak emanated from within.
“Double-time!” Liv commanded in a loud bark. She started to run, the others following suit.
As if on command, zombie squirrels began to appear, from inside bushes and under shady trees. Liv brandished her tennis racket and swished it from side to side, belting out her best warrior yell.
Zombie squirrels do not run. They amble. However, their numbers were overwhelming. Liv could tell they were trying to cut the children off from the school and from safety. This time she roared, imagining herself as Athena, goddess of wisdom and war.
Liv saw their clear path narrowing before her eyes. At the entrance to the school, a small crowd was cheering them on, a pair of the school’s security officers heading their way. Then, something crashed down from above, from an ancient oak that arched over the street.
“Gah,” Charlie cried out as the thrashing, grey squirrel tangled in his hair. The animal dropped to the ground as he flailed his arms and screamed, jumping an erratic dance. Liv, Sammy, and Johann stepped back in unison. Charlie trembled as he calmed down; he gathered the nerve to tap at the squirrel body that was now motionless on the ground. The other squirrels halted their approach and watched. The security officers began to kick their way through the mass of squirrels that were now cutting the children off from escape. Liz froze and held a hand out to the boys. Any movement might incite a squirrel attack.
The only sounds Liv could hear were Charlie’s huffing and puffing, the far-off cursing of the security officers, and a chittering noise, almost a whisper. Charlie peered down at the squirrel. With a slow, graceless motion, the squirrel looked up at him. It sniffed. It stared.
Liv glanced over at the security officers, neither of which had any kind of handheld weapon. She shook her head in disgust at their unpreparedness. They were almost within grabbing distance of the kids.
When she looked back to Charlie, the squirrel was wobbling towards him on unsteady legs. Its tail flicked in an elaborate gesture, and to Liv’s surprise, the other squirrels began to back away. The zombie squirrel looked up at Charlie, right as one of the officer’s size thirteen boots punted it towards the thick foliage of the overgrown ditch.
As Liv felt arms circle around her waist to pull her away, she watched the last stragglers of the disappearing zombie squirrels, hoping one would break away and exact revenge in the name of his fallen brother.