This story by Sara Crosby was one of the runners up in our Three-Minute Fiction contest.
Larry, my brother, started digging into other squirrels' caches last fall. I was the one who watched him for a couple of days and figured out that he wasn't actually stealing any food. He'd just dig up a cache and then deposit oddball nesting materials, like paper scraps or cassette tape ribbon he'd balled up and licked clean, right there next to someone else's acorns. When I asked him why he was doing it, he backed up on his hind legs, hung his paws in the air in front of him, and said, "Doing what?"
My sister Delores thinks Larry has problems because he was left behind when our old nest got infested with fleas and Mom moved the litter to a new nest in that double-trunk sweetgum tree. By the time Mom went back to get him, he'd chewed his tail off. We all took turns smelling the wound, and Mom showed him how to keep it extra clean. Eventually, his fur grew in like the rest of ours, except now there's a button of black fur where the base of his tail should be.
Squirrels are tricky because we all instinctively act a little crazy. We're schizophrenic about Danger. Sure, we'll perch next to an old man on a park bench, cocking our tails with apprehensive affection, as he feeds us kernels of leftover movie popcorn. But if a harmless pair of mallards flies by too low, we'll jerk up the nearest tree and paste ourselves to its bark. Scientifically speaking, it's easily explained: Those mallards occasionally turn out to be hawks, and everyone knows that hawks like to weave squirrel tails into the walls of their nests as some kind of fanatical buteo mating thing. People, however, are too awed to be threatening. With the exception of my friend Stewart — who was so focused on what he thought was a lady's plastic bag of peanuts that he ended up slack-bodied, convulsing and then dead in her golden retriever's mouth — people don't want to hurt us; they just want to follow us with their cameras and get hysterical about the way we hold acorns in our paws.
But Larry never cultivated this innate obsession with Danger. If a taxi is about to run him over, Larry just runs straight ahead, instead of trying to baffle the thing with some masterful dart-freeze-zigzag-go! maneuvers. If an acorn smells rotten, he'll eat it anyway. If it snows after dusk, he'll watch the flakes fall while the rest of us huddle and hide. Sometimes, for fun, he grows out his incisors. And according to Delores, he once stood in the middle of a patch of breadcrumbs and actually let a pigeon peck at him.
So this morning, when I saw Larry chewing on the rear axle of a Parks Department pick-up truck, the Danger level overwhelmed me and I temporarily lost control of my sweat glands. He was so involved with mouthing the axle — suckling, really — that he didn't notice me until I was right next to him. "Larry!" I chirred. He stopped nibbling, but kept his paws cupped around the axle. He listened, as if he could hear a far-off group of lunching school children, and then yawned. I'd started doing some superficial, frantic fur preening for my nerves, but forced myself to stop and ask, "Why are you doing that?!" Larry slid his greasy paws away from the axle and hung them out in front of him. Then he planted his rounded, acaudate behind on the ground, and stared at me, as if to say, "Doing what?"