My apartment smells like dead squirrel.
There's a tree outside my kitchen window where an old gray squirrel used to live. He would climb out on the low branches and watch me eating breakfast every morning. I would look up from my bowl of Cheerios and he'd be sitting there, staring through the warped glass with his big black eyes like I was rude not to invite him in for coffee.
Come on, he seemed to say, perched on his back legs like a puppy begging for table scraps. Don't you like me? Can't you spare a few crumbs?
I named him Aaron, after my ex-boyfriend. Aaron-the-guy used to look at me that way, too.
Then, one day, Aaron-the-squirrel went missing. I sat down at the table with my coffee and the morning paper, shoveling Cheerios into my mouth like I always do. But there was no Aaron. The window was empty – just the tree standing outside, turning yellow for the fall.
At first, I figured he'd found someone else's window to peek through, or a new stash of acorns in a neighbor's yard. He could be off visiting family in one of the maples out back, or pulling pieces of moldy bread from the dumpster again. He may have even found a cute lady squirrel who would let him shack up in her tree for the winter.
Then, I smelled it – a sick combination of mildew, compost, and the men's locker room at Sweaty Hal's Gym. I came home from work and choked when I opened the front door – the stench slapped me square in the mouth. I tried to ignore it at first, turned on a fan, spritzed some perfume in the air, and went about microwaving a frozen lasagna for dinner. I was used to strange odors floating in from the nearby apartments. It would go away soon enough. I'd stopped asking questions a long time ago.
After a few hours, though, it started seeping into me – my clothes, my skin, my hair. Even in the shower, it was all I could smell. I scrubbed and scrubbed, lathering every inch of my body in foam. I washed my hair twice, conditioned, rinsed, and repeated. No matter what I did, it was like the stench washed the soap away, leaving hints of scum-scent on my towels.
The next day, it was even worse. I decided to call my landlord.
"It's terrible," I told him. "The smell's everywhere, but the kitchen's got the worst of it. I can't even stand to eat in there anymore."
"Something probably died in the wall," he said. I imagined him picking at his fingernails on the end of the line. "Nothing much we can do 'cept wait it out."
I thought of Aaron's furry face, and my stomach cramped up.
"Can't you knock a wall out or something?" I eyed the peeling paint, the cracks in the sheetrock. My gaze settled on a rust-colored stain in the buckled carpet as I pressed the phone tight against my cheek. "I don't think it would take much work."
"Honey, you could never find that thing, anyway." He laughed. "Why don't you go find yourself a nice strong air freshener? It'll be better before you know it."
I thanked him for his advice and threw the phone at the floor. I bought an air freshener that afternoon.
Now, my apartment smells like dead squirrel and lilac blossoms.
"Damn, Val." My sister, Laurie, gagged as she dropped her purse on the kitchen floor. "Christ, this place is a shithole."
Laurie has never been the type to keep her thoughts quiet. When I was thirteen years old, and she was in high school, she just looked at me one day and said, "Jesus, Val. When did you get a mustache?" I cried for a while, but she spent half an hour that afternoon plucking fuzzy dark hairs off the top of my lip. That's the kind of sister she is.
So I'd been expecting her to bring up the stink.
"It's Aaron," I tried to explain. "He was always looking in the window, you know? And now he's just gone. I actually kinda miss –"
Laurie's eyes went round. "Jesus, Val. What the hell did you do to him?"
"Nothing!" I cracked a window. The wooden frame squeaked as I propped it open with an old wine bottle. "It was probably one of the fifty goddamn cats that live out by the dumpsters."
"My God, was he allergic or something?" Laurie walked further into the kitchen, peering suspiciously at corners and closet doors. She lowered her voice. "Where the fuck did you put the body? Shit, should we call the cops or the fire department or something? What the hell do we tell them?"
"What are you talking about?" I saw the creases on her forehead getting deeper.
"What do you mean, what am I talking about?" She put a hand on her hip and for a minute I thought she was about to come at me with the tweezers again. "You fucking killed the guy, Val. You can't just let him rot in your apartment."
"No, you idiot." I felt the muscles in my neck tense up. "I didn't kill anybody. Aaron's just a stupid squirrel. He died in the wall and now this whole fucking place smells like Great-Aunt Beulah."
Laurie's face relaxed. "So there's no dead guy in the closet?"
"Christ, you scared me for a minute." She took a deep breath and gagged again before breaking into a grin. "You named a fucking squirrel 'Aaron?' After that dumbass with the spiked-up hair?"
"Well." I shrugged. "He did always have food shoved in his cheeks."
"No kidding." She laughed and rolled her eyes. "So how did the little fella get in here in the first place?"
"Beats me." Sometimes, I tried to imagine how Aaron would spend his days after I left the breakfast table.
In my mind, he would scamper to the top of the big tree and jump across to the apartment roof. He'd stay there, on the lookout for new acorns, until he eventually got bored and shimmied back down to my window. The next day, he'd sneak onto my porch and dart through the door while I took out trash. He'd have the place to himself while I was at work and there's no telling what kind of trouble he caused. I think he'd steal socks out of the dryer.
Of course, I didn't say that to my sister.
"Maybe he fell down the chimney," I said. "Or maybe he got into that spot on the roof where the rain always comes through."
"Well," Laurie said, looking around like she was Superman and could see inside the walls. "Wherever he went, he can't stay there."
"Doesn't smell like he'll be getting himself out anytime soon."
"Don't joke." She bit her lip like she does when she's serious. "We have to get that thing out of here. It's fucking disgusting."
"I already called my landlord," I told her. "He said he can't do anything."
"Screw your landlord." Laurie started rummaging through my drawers and cupboards.
"What're you looking for?"
"A hammer." She kept sifting through the piles of silverware and dishtowels. "You have one, don't you?"
"What are you going to do?" I swallowed a breath of death-air and coughed. "The landlord said to just wait and it would go away in a little while."
"Valerie." Laurie's nostrils flared. "Do you know how long it takes a squirrel's dead body to decompose?"
I shook my head.
"Neither do I. But I bet it's longer than you can last with this fucking smell. Bring me the damn hammer." She paused before adding, "And grab one of those cats from the parking lot, too."
Twenty minutes later, I was luring a gritty-looking, one-eyed tabby into my apartment with an open can of tuna. I cringed as she licked at the tinned fish. Fleas were probably leaping from kitty to carpet as I stood there, watching the flecks of processed seafood stick to her whiskers. On second thought, it didn't make much difference: If the fleas wanted to move in with the spiders and cockroaches, what did I care? I was getting a headache from all the smells, the salty scent of tuna mingling with the rank decaying air.
"Don't let her get too full on the good stuff!" Laurie insisted. She was sitting cross-legged, leaning against the bubbled layers of paint, spinning the head of the hammer like a top against the floor. "We want her hungry. She'll hunt better that way."
"She looks hungry enough." I poured water into an old plastic butter dish and placed it next to the tuna can. The tabby cocked her head sideways and surveyed the new item for a few seconds before shoving her face in the water. I took the tuna away and set it on the countertop. She would get the rest as a reward for a job well done. Her accusing green eye stared up at me.
"C'mere, kitty!" Laurie called, clicking her tongue and whistling softly. "Time to get to work! Here, kitty kitty kitty!"
The cat slinked across the room, allowing Laurie to give her a few scratches behind the ear. My sister's hand moved slowly down the tabby's neck, stroking along her back until she reached the tail. She kept petting, caressing the matted fur with the tips of her fingers, massaging between the mangy ears. The cat's body smoothed out – her muscles at ease, the eyelid starting to close over her good eye.
"What are you doing?" I whispered. "Hypnotizing her?"
"Ssh," Laurie hissed. "Don't be stupid. How the hell would I hypnotize a fucking cat?"
"Sorry," I mumbled, crossing my arms over my chest. A chilly breeze blew in from the open window.
Laurie gave the tabby's ears a final scratch, then pulled her hand away. "Come on now, kitty! Find Aaron! Smell him out!"
The cat twitched her tail, irritated. She glared at Laurie for a moment before turning away. Leaning her weight against the wall, she arched her back and rubbed her furry side against the uneven patches of spackling. Finally, she stopped, sitting primly in front of a large crack in the drywall. She batted the peeling paint with one paw and meowed.
"Good kitty!" Laurie cooed, lifting the hammer as she crawled toward the tabby's mark. "Good job! Now shoo!" She waved the cat away with her empty hand.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I plopped into a chair at the kitchen table, my head throbbing. The tabby rubbed against my legs, her wiry tail brushing across my knees.
"You have a better idea?"
My sister's expression was set, hard as the hammer in her fist. My hand rose to my upper lip like a reflex.
"Fine," I said. "Do what you want."
Laurie swung the hammer. It hit the wall with a sick thump, sending white dust and slivers of old paint flying at her face. She wiped them off with her sleeve and swung again. Thunk, thunk, thunk, tearing into the sheetrock like a miner striking coal.
"There!" She looked up with satisfaction. The hole in the wall was as big as her head. "Holy shit, it smells bad in there!" She choked against a dry heave, clenching her jaw in determination.
The pulsing in my head beat louder. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The hole was jagged at the edges where the hammer's claw had torn. Bits of insulation fell to the floor around Laurie's knees. She didn't seem to notice.
"This was a bad idea." I shut my eyes against the destroyed sheetrock. The rot was pouring out of it and making my stomach twist.
"Too late now." Laurie pinched her nose. "Good news is, he's definitely in there somewhere."
"Just get him out." I coughed. "Fast."
"I'm trying!" she said, turning back to the hole. "Now, where is the little bastard?" She hesitated a moment, took a deep breath, and plunged her face into the opening. From my place in the kitchen, I watched her neck turn from side to side, straining to see the odd angles of the wall's interior.
"Fuck!" She yanked her head out, blinking hard against the stinging reek and the kitchen's fluorescent lighting. "I think I'm gonna pass out." Her face was blanched from dust and dizziness. She pressed a hand against the wall to steady herself.
"Hell no, I'm not okay! It smells like a fucking squirrel morgue in there." Flakes of paint clung to her hair, coloring it with bits of gray and white and blue – remnants of the former renters who had painted over their predecessors' color choices.
Laurie gave me a look that made my lip burn.
"Fuck!" she said again, smacking her palm against the wall. "Where the fuck is that fucking squirrel?"
A metallic clank sounded across the kitchen floor. My head snapped around just in time to see the tabby standing on top of the counter, her fur bristled up around her neck. She peered down sideways at the linoleum, where the half-empty can of tuna had landed and was now scraping across the floor as its contents tumbled out. Juicy drops of tuna-water splattered onto my foot, cool and wet as a sneeze. I closed my eyes and let the fishy-dead smell wrap around my throat.
So, now I have a tabby cat named Laurie.
And my apartment still smells like dead squirrel and lilac blossoms.
Lilac Blossoms: A Dead Squirrel Story
Danielle E. Curtis
About the Writer
Danielle E. Curtis grew up around the Adirondack Mountains of northeastern New York State. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University, and now lives in New York City. She is currently working on her first novel.