As a boy Dylan had always been fascinated by squirrels. As are most kids, really. Which is interesting in itself because a squirrel is closely related to a rat, the only real differences being a bushy tail and an obsession with nuts. Yet, you’ll be hard pressed to find a kid hugging a rat, the way they’ll hug a squirrel. Now, Dylan was in his early twenties and as he sat in the middle of the park, on the grass by the side of the pond, with his girlfriend Claire by his side, he watched a squirrel dotting around happily in the afternoon sun.
‘Are you listening?’ asked Claire. She was a pretty girl with freckles that only appeared after being soaked by the sun. When she blinked sometimes her left eye would close just ever so slightly before the other. But a person usually had to know her for a few years before they’d ever notice. Her fingers meanwhile were ever so slightly scratched and bloody from handling her pet kitten. On anyone else, these ‘imperfections’ would be just that, imperfect, but somehow it was her flaws that made her oddly attractive.
Dylan didn’t realise she was talking.
He felt as though his mind no longer resided within the constraints of his skull but was instead hovering somewhere over the pond looking down on him. He was thinking about how there was a time when the red squirrel could travel across the entire country through the ancient wildwood without touching the ground once. He was imagining what that network of trees might have looked like. If he could live his life without touching the ground once, he thought, he would be very happy. Perhaps if he could join his mind, floating over the pond, that might be good enough.
‘Are you listening?’ repeated Claire, more sternly.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
It wasn’t a complete lie. If only he could explain that he wasn’t fully ‘there’ with her. How he had always felt that something was missing inside of him. Something fundamentally important.
‘I’m pregnant,’ she said.
‘Interesting things, squirrels,’ he replied, quickly, ‘The Norse believed that the squirrel was a messenger who spread news and gossip and insults …’
Claire broke up bits of a dead leaf in her hands and flicked them away. There was a time when Dylan’s vagueness had been one of the things that had attracted her to him. He was so intelligent, academic. Now, his black rimmed glasses, and the elbow patches on his brown tweed coat made him seem an impostor.
‘I don’t want to talk about squirrels!’ she said.
Dylan spotted another one climbing up a tree. If his mind had returned to his skull there and then, he would have jumped up and joined the animal. To Dylan, squirrels were the happiest of creatures. For all their time carrying insults, they seemed to be purposefully content, he thought. Their goals are to collect nuts, to stay safe, and that’s it. What else is there to worry about? They don’t have to pay bills, taxes, and have conversations at all.
‘I just need time to think,’ he said.
‘But I need you, NOW,’ repeated Claire, with eyes like raindrops, so big, Dylan felt their full weight upon his shoulders without looking. ‘I’m seventeen Dylan,’ she pleaded, ‘What do I tell my mum, my dad? They’re gonna kill me.’
The squirrel stopped halfway up the tree, hanging with one paw clawed into the bark, and another holding a chestnut. It looked at Dylan curiously. Dylan had seen squirrels take huge numbers of nuts from bird feeders and he doubted they only gathered what they need. For he had seen them take so much, and yet they were only small. He had watched them bury whole caches all over the gardens and not only was he quite sure they forgot many of these hiding places, he had also seen crows follow them about digging up things they had buried.
‘Dylan?’ asked Claire.
For a moment it seemed both she and the squirrel expected an answer. Dylan considered that squirrels were seen to be frugal, thrifty, and yet they were always busy collecting something that they didn’t always need. Then again, Perhaps it was because they couldn’t help but be so single focused. What else was there to do if they didn’t collect nuts? Would they get bored? Would they start to question the meaning of their existence?
She slapped him hard against the jaw.
He felt a red hot warmth flooding his cheeks, as the squirrels scurried away, frightened. A thousand words tried to escape his mouth all at once.
What he really wanted to tell her is how scared he was. How he didn’t have a clue what he was in for. How he didn’t understand the purpose of his own life. How could he possibly share that purpose with a child?
He watched her out of his periphery as she walked away. For the rest of the day he just sat there, watching the squirrels scampering to and fro, and squinting his blurred eyes, trying to picture what the park would look like if all the trees were invisible.