by George Dila
I hadn't planned on making a confession, but there was a pause in the conversation, and I impulsively filled it.
“I did an awful thing on the way here,” I said.
We had gathered for cake and coffee and joviality, not dark admissions, but now I had everyone's attention, and it was too late to back out. Four faces turned to me, eager to hear the worst, one of the more unattractive traits of the human species.
“I hit a little squirrel,” I said. My throat actually tightened as I said the words.
“Oh, no,” Carla said. There was genuine hurt in her voice. Heartache, instant and real.
“Jack couldn't help it,” said my wife Bev, ever my loyal defender “The squirrel just ran right into the road.”
The birthday, the cake, the coffee, the celebratory mood had vanished. I should have quit right there, but I continued.
“There were two of them. Only one ran out. The other stopped when it saw what happened.”
“They were probably lovers,” Katie said. “They were just playing. Having fun. That's so sad.”
I knew she was right. She had to be. They had been chasing each other, giddy with love, heedless in their joy. For a reason I can't explain, I thought of the one I'd hit as the boy, the one that had stayed back, the girl. But it could have been the other way around.
“It happened so fast,” Bev said.
“I swerved, saw it disappear under the car, and for a second, less than that, a micro-second, I thought I had missed it. Then the thump.”
“That little thump,” Carla said. “It's just awful when you hear it.”
“I looked in my rear view mirror, hoping. But there it was, in the road behind us. I felt sick.”
The air was heavy with gloom, and not a little rueful reflection.
“Those darn squirrels,” Pete said, trying to lighten the mood. Then he tried to lighten it even more by telling a mildly risqué joke, the punch line of which was “I think I'll take the soup.” The laughter was short, perfunctory, and then it was quiet again, everyone still thinking about the dead squirrel, and the way the fates can intervene, and how a marvelous thing can suddenly come to a bad end.
“Maybe you only stunned him,” Bev said. “Maybe he just got up, shook it off, and ran back to his lover.”
“That's what happened,” Carla said. “He was just a bit dazed.”
“You could drive the same route home,” Pete said. “See if he's there. I'll bet he's gone.”
“That's what I'm going to do,” I said, knowing that I would never do that. In fact, I would not drive on that road again until I was sure nothing remained of that mess of muscle and bone and fur, sure that the crows had done what crows are meant to do. I would not return until I was sure there would be nothing left to remind me of that blissful moment gone wrong, no evidence of the crime, when all those two careless lovers wanted was a little bit of mindless joy.