Call me Isabel.
Of course, I’m better known by my blog name: firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s where I write down all the cute and clever things my children say, and I post pictures of our craft projects, home-cooked meals, and educational trips. I also offer great parenting advice to help others raise children who are intelligent, sensitive, creative, and well-adjusted.
But I’m not here to tell you about my blog (that’s email@example.com). I’m actually here to tell you the story of an albino squirrel, as white as bleached flour (which we never touch) and as innocent as my children (who have never even seen that part in Bambi when his mother d–s; it’s too shocking of a topic for young minds). This is also the story of our neighbor Mr. Ahabski, who developed a monomania about the poor little creature.
Some years ago, my husband Connor convinced me to leave Manhattan and start a family in his hometown of Morris Mill. You might think you’ve heard of Morris Mill. You’re probably thinking of one of the many other “Morris” or “Mill” towns in New Jersey. Some day my blog might put Morris Mill on the map, but for now it’s just another little town in central New Jersey. Its downtown is a few blocks of mismatched houses and family businesses and a surprising number of squirrels. Anyway, we settled here in the home that once belonged to Connor’s Aunt Great Suzy and had two unusually intelligent, sensitive, creative children.
One summer morning, as I was photographing our organic, gluten-free, green, paleo, breakfast smoothies for my blog, our neighbor Mr. Ahabski screamed. It’s a terrifying thing to hear an elderly man scream, especially an elderly man who never raises his voice above a mutter about “over-indulged, over-protected br-ts” and “mothers who coddle to the point of stifling.” He’s talking about the family across the street.
My first thought, at the sound of Mr. Ahabski’s scream, was that either his red convertible had been scratched or his tomato plants trampled. Mr. A spends most of his time lovingly polishing his car or protecting his garden from Morris Mill’s abundance of squirrels. It worries me that all these sweet, fuzzy, little animals eat his tomatoes, because I can see from our kitchen window how many chemicals he sprays on the plants. I never open windows on the side of our house facing Mr. A’s garden for fear his fertilizers and pesticides and toxic car products will contaminate my precious children.
But it wasn’t the chemicals doing the contaminating that morning — it was Mr. Ahabski’s words. We followed his gaze and saw a strange sight: a ghost-white squirrel with blood-red tomato running from its jaws.
“It’s come for me,” Mr. Ahabski moaned. “It wants revenge for all the squirrels I’ve put to d–”
I cranked up Mozart before he could finish his sentence.
Many parents know that classical music is useful for promoting brain development. Far fewer realize it’s also useful for protecting children from hearing about bad things like d–th and t-xes. We listen to a lot of Mozart when Connor insists on watching the news or when Mr. Ahabski is muttering in his backyard. Given her familiarity with Mozart’s music, Emma once asked me if she could meet Mozart. I said she couldn’t and tried to distract her with all-natural flaxseed granola. “Why can’t I?” she kept asking. Of course, I couldn’t tell her Mozart was d–d, not if I wanted to give her the ideal, carefree childhood I describe on my blog. Instead, I said, “You can’t meet Mozart, because he’s on a very long trip.” That’s a euphemism I use quite often. Beethoven, Mrs. Ahabski, Connor’s Great Aunt Suzy, and Bambi’s mom are likewise on very long trips.
The children were so interested in the white squirrel that I decided to design summer homeschooling lessons around it. I bought binoculars and little nature journals. We read library books about animal care (we are pet-free due to the diseases they carry and the inevitable d–th). We also bought a squirrel feeder and squirrel bath for the backyard so we could more closely observe the little white squirrel and its many gray friends.
Michael is my future artist. He drew abstract pictures of the white squirrel feasting from Mr. Ahabski’s squirrel-proof birdfeeder. Emma’s my future scientist. She recorded the amount of time the white squirrel spent in our yard compared to Mr. Ahabski’s yard. She noticed that it preferred his birdfeeder, which surprised me since ours had organic, multigrain seed.
As we observed the white squirrel, we also observed Mr. Ahabski’s increasingly altered behavior. Instead of spending his days spraying pesticides on his vegetable garden or polishing his red convertible with toxic compounds, he began focusing his time and energy on the white squirrel. He appeared to be trying to appease it, perhaps in apology for the aforementioned squirrel d–ths he had caused or perhaps in apology for his heavy pesticide use, which likely caused the white squirrel’s “differentness.”
It was quite sweet to see the efforts Mr. A took on behalf of the little creature. Throughout the month of August he put out special food. From the kitchen window, it looked like peanut butter mixed with a white powder, possibly crushed multivitamin or protein supplement. He also set up Havahart traps filled with mixed gourmet nuts. It warmed my heart to picture Mr. A catching the little white squirrel and keeping it as a pet. The squirrel would stay warm and dry in Mr. A’s house all winter long, and Mr. A would never be lonely again. But only gray squirrels were caught in the traps — an endless supply of gray squirrels, in fact. The white squirrel seemed to prefer Mr. A’s squirrel-proof birdfeeder and his vegetable garden to “peanut butter surprise” and mixed gourmet nuts.
Mr. Ahabski’s next plan, it seemed, was to turn his garden patch into an outdoor squirrel haven. By early August, the six-foot-tall garden fence was covered with two layers of thick wire mesh and anchored to the ground with metal stakes. But the white squirrel still managed to squirm out after each visit. By mid August, Mr. A had dug a moat around the perimeter of his garden and replaced the wooden fence posts with heavy steel ones. By late August, the steel posts were embedded in poured concrete and the garden was roofed with barbed wire. Still, we sometimes saw the white squirrel perched in a tree above Mr. A’s yard, holding a tomato in its furry paws. Such a little dickens!
One hot afternoon at the end of August, as I was photographing us unloading organic produce from our minivan, Michael said, “I see the white squirrel! He’s getting into Mr. A’s garden!”
Sure enough, the white squirrel was wiggling through the fence right at the end of Mr. A’s driveway.
Our attention was almost instantly diverted by Mr. A speeding into his driveway in his red convertible.
That’s when things became a bit surreal. Instead of slowing down, Mr. A stepped on the gas pedal. The engine roared and the car lunged forward, slamming into the vegetable garden right where the white squirrel had been standing mere seconds ago.
It all happened so quickly that I was stunned, simply stunned. All I could think about was the lifetime of emotional damage my children would now face after witnessing a fatal squirrel-car accident. I hurried them into the house to shield them from the grisly scene, and I planned to spend the rest of the afternoon talking about our feelings.
But I couldn’t just leave Mr. Ahabski. The poor man had staggered from his car and stood staring at the wreck. The front end of his beautiful car was crumbled and smashed beyond repair in the mess of steel posts and barbed wire, all bent in grotesque shapes. The only evidence that plants had ever grown in the garden plot was the tomatoes that had been catapulted onto my kitchen window. Seeds and pulp dripped from my windowsill like bl–d. It chilled me to the core.
“Mr. Ahabski, are you okay?” I asked shakily.
That’s when he began to laugh. Not the jolly little chuckle I hear from his backyard when Michael throws a tantrum or Emma talks back to me in a disrespectful tone. It was a full-out crazy-man cackle.
“It’s gone! It’s finally gone!” he sang, as he danced — yes, danced! — beside his ruined car. It struck me that watching an elderly man dance and sing is even more frightening than hearing one scream.
“You poor, dear man!” I said as soothingly as I could. Despite my own distress, my heart bled to think of how he just lost everything he loved in a matter of seconds: car, garden, and squirrel-friend.
But just then, when the world seemed so dark, the white squirrel dashed from under Mr. A’s car, unharmed, and scampered up our magnolia tree. I almost cried from relief. My precious children hadn’t witnessed a d–th! And Mr. A had something left to live for — the irreplaceable white squirrel!
But Mr. A did not appear to be rejoicing. Quite the reverse, in fact. “I missed!” he raged. “I can’t believe I missed the little bugger! My car! My garden! Ruined! For nothing!”
That’s when, in horror, I realized how grossly I had misjudged his motives. That sick, sick man had been trying to cause another squirrel d–th! And the d–th of our beloved white squirrel!
I ran inside in extreme mental anguish. I needed to sit down with a tall glass of organic, hormone-free milk to process all this.
I found Emma and Michael at the kitchen window. Michael was jumping up and down. “Oh, man! That was sooo exciting!” he yelled.
“Yeah!” Emma agreed, her eyes sparkling. “For a minute there, I thought the white squirrel had gone on a loooooong trip.”
Michael stood still in confusion. “A trip? What do you mean? In Mr. Ahabski’s car?”
“No, silly. A. Long. Trip. The kind Mozart took. And Bambi’s mom. You know!” Emma gave Michael a look of exasperation at his ignorance.
Then Michael answered, “Ohhhh. DEAD. You mean the DEAD kind of long trip.”
Emma glanced toward me. “Shhh! Michael, don’t say that word in front of Momma.”
Then she put her arm around me. “Momma, do you need to talk about your feelings?”
Steen is a medical writer, mother of two, and Rocky Hill resident. Her 2012 story, “Morris Mill’s Mascot,” also focused on the fictional town of Morris Mill.