John Winthorp returned the stare from the squirrel outside his office window. He must have been looking at it for a while because he suddenly became aware of his boss’s voice calling his name through the computer speakers. He shook his head and breathed out a laugh after everyone else on the group video chat did first.

     “John, over here, buddy,” Luke Blasic said from the window on the bottom left. “I’d ask what you think of Stacy’s proposal, but I’m pretty sure you missed it.”

     “I’m really sorry,” John said, looking up briefly again. He only saw the empty tree branch outside the window in front of him. “I never worked from home before. I guess this will take some getting used to.”

     The six co-workers occupying individual squares on the Zoom video chat interface made various nods and murmurs of agreement.

     “Don’t sweat it,” Luke said, pushing up his horn-rimmed glasses. “I think this new way will take some getting used to for all of us. We’ll just have to work a little harder because of that.”

     John bit his cheek.

“But this is a good time to break for the day,” Luke continued. “Stacy, I think we’re mostly in agreement here, though I hope John uploads his comments to the spreadsheet before it gets too late today.”

“Yes, absolutely,” John mumbled.

“Great, and I’ll make sure the data from this morning is attached in a mass e-mail after this call so we can get a head start before tomorrow.”

     John continued to chew his cheek. Great. Job stress on top of everything else going on in the world. He relaxed his jaw when he remembered everyone could see his face.

     “And I have one more request for all of you tonight,” Luke said. He removed his glasses and leaned in closer to his camera, the fisheye lens distorting the dimensions of his face. “Take a minute—or better yet, five minutes—and really appreciate the fact that none of us are sitting and waiting for unemployment insurance to kick in, okay? I know it’s a challenging time right now with this virus going around and the need to socially distance ourselves from friends and loved ones, but ultimately nothing has changed here for us at Sterling Global, okay? We’re running full speed ahead with the campaign, and we’ll be doing a victory lap as usual once the work is complete. It might be from the comforts of your living room, or perhaps bathroom…”

     Luke paused, awaiting laughter. He got a few chuckles from Stacy and Mark Kensington on the bottom right of the screen.

     “…but we will remain victorious even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Can I get a copy that from everyone?”

     “Copy that,” Luke said aloud in unison with everyone else.

     “That’s my team,” Luke said. “And I wish you all a good afternoon and evening, and we’ll reconvene tomorrow at ten o’clock AM again. Goodbye for now everyone.”

     John pushed his mouse around trying to remember how to hang up the video call. He wasn’t the only one. His colleagues’ expressions of confusion and annoyance varied as they squinted their eyes and scanned their monitors. One by one the windows on the screen eventually disappeared.

     John sighed and looked up to his office window again. The tree branch in view was coming to a rest from shaking. 


     As soon as he finished work at 5 pm, John sat on the balcony of his apartment and smoked an American Spirit with his scotch. It was his first cigarette in ten years. As he looked down at the traffic-less freeway cutting through the Hollywood Hills, he figured there were bigger concerns.

     He picked up his phone and scrolled through his social media feeds, alternating between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There were no new “Likes” on his joke regarding the poor leadership of the president since checking ten minutes earlier, nor any promising news regarding the virus. That’s when he heard a clicking sound. He put the phone down and saw another grey squirrel, or perhaps the same one from earlier perched on the ledge of the balcony. It was staring at him, shaking its tail, and curling a hand up under its chest as if pointing at itself.

     “Something for you, huh?” John asked.

     The squirrel twitched its nose.

     John put out the cigarette and walked back inside towards the kitchen. He rummaged through a cabinet until he found the bag of pistachios that his ex-girlfriend bought and left behind a seeming lifetime ago. He grabbed a handful and returned to the balcony.

     The creature was now on the small patio table standing upright and peering into the glass of Glenlivet John left behind. Instinctively, John quickly grabbed the drink and watched the squirrel only continue to stand and lean towards him.

     John laughed and placed a few pistachios at its feet. It lowered itself, grabbed a nut, and began turning it upside down and right side up as it searched for a way to open it with its mouth. It didn’t move from the table that was no more than a foot away from John’s hand. He marveled at the seeming fearlessness of the animal.

     John sat down and proceeded to sip his drink as the squirrel continued to eat. John brought his hand up with another nut and watched the squirrel reach for it with its claws and nimbly pull it from between his fingers. They sat, ate, and drank together until John’s concept of time vanished entirely.


     Stacy Kleinman’s marketing proposal was no easier to follow at eight o’clock the following morning with a hangover, but John dutifully woke up early and did his best while prepping coffee. He also bypassed the television for a change and put a record on his dusty turntable—Tito Puente’s “Mambo on Broadway”—something upbeat and dance-able to start the day. But he had to turn off the Latin jazz rhythms when he started feeling vaguely aroused. It occurred to him that being alone and single in the midst of a pandemic might be a curse. He wondered if Stacy could file a complaint with HR if she noticed his hard-on during a Zoom call.

He needed to chat with her before the group meeting for clarification on one of her bullet points, and just as she answered the call is when the squirrel appeared on the tree branch in front of his office window again. He became concerned when he realized he opened it for air earlier.

“What’s up, John?” she asked, smiling pleasantly in front of her computer camera in casual business attire.

“Oh, uh,” John stumbled. “I—you know, it’s the funniest thing. This squirrel keeps popping up in front of my window whenever you talk on camera.”

“That’s one way to let me know my work isn’t very interesting, I suppose,” Stacy said.

John’s jaw dropped. “What? No! That’s ludicrous—here, look.”

John quickly spun his monitor in a 180-degree direction, affectively pulling out the cable connecting it to the rest of the computer. The screen went dead.

“Shit,” John muttered.

His knees creaked as he lowered himself to examine the computer tower under the desk. He turned on the flashlight feature of his cell phone and shined it into the darkness in front of him. Another squirrel was inches from his face, enmeshed in the nest of cables and chewing on one of the exposed wires. John screamed and fell backwards. And then he saw two more squirrels leap in through the window.

He jumped to his feet and scrambled towards the window, pulling it down and slamming with all his might—too much might. A crack raced its way up from the bottom of the glass to the top like a raging river. The squirrels began running and bouncing in random zig zags around the room as if caught on a hot frying pan—folders and papers scattered in the air, a picture frame fell off the wall, and a button was pushed on the printer as it suddenly powered up and ingested a fresh sheet.

John frantically skipped to the door in something of a hop-scotch pattern and quickly slammed it behind him. His heart was racing as he wiped fresh sweat from his forehead. He looked around the living room and finally breathed again when he saw all was still. When he noticed the random flickering shadows dancing in front of his feet from the gap between the door and the floor, he heard the muffled sounds of chaos and frenzy behind him. He licked his lips and raised the cell phone still in his hand. His landlord was going to be pissed.


“You fed them, didn’t you?” John’s landlord, Bill Heathrow, asked from behind a surgical blue face mask, and roughly six feet away in the living room.

John elected not to answer the question, also wearing a facemask in the most earnest, but bare minimal attempt to be respectful in this situation.

“You give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a goddamned mile,” Bill grunted. “Let nature be, son.”

Suddenly the Mexican pest control expert came out of the office holding a cage with all three squirrels. They were as calm as could be; both sitting, cracking open pistachios, and eating with blissful indifference to their new imprisonment.

“Gracias, amigo,” the pest man said to John. “The-uh, pistachios, mucho bueno. Better than my bait.”

Bill raised an eye at John before following the cage out of the apartment.

John walked the men out and watched the pest expert bring the cage to the back door of his van.

“The soonest I can get that window fixed is sometime next week,” Bill said. “Don’t touch it till then.”

John nodded and watched the squirrels disappear into the back of the van. “What are you going to do with them?” he called out.

“Drop them at the park,” the pest man hollered back. “One mile away.”

John closed his front door, evading Bill’s piercing glare as his landlord proceeded to count money from his wallet.


John was sitting at his desk, smoking, and staring at the new crack in his window when his phone lit up with an incoming video call from Luke Blasic. He decided to answer.

“Hey boss,” John said glumly.

Luke appeared to be running on a treadmill machine in his gym clothes and wearing glasses that strapped to his head resembling goggles.

“Where were you during the meeting, John? We had a heck of a brainstorm session today on the Pinsky campaign. Is everything okay?”

The crack in the window expanded at that moment, the whole thing now resembling a tree with a branch.

“I don’t think so, Luke. I’m having a really hard time with everything going on in the world right now.” He paused. “I think I’m depressed.”

Luke nodded while keeping his stride. “You have to start a regular exercise routine if you haven’t yet. Nothing cures the blues like active endorphins.”

John turned the phone away slightly to drag from his cigarette.

“Do you need more time to upload your files?” Luke asked.

John nodded. “I don’t have a computer at the moment. Something happened and it broke today. I’m not quite sure how to get one with everything going on right now.”

“Office supplies are an essential service,” John said quickly. “After this call you should look up your local retailer and see what’s in stock. I can probably buy you another day of delay, but we’re really counting on you to deliver this week.”

“Yes, sir,” John mustered.

“Buck up, brother. We’re all in this together.”

John hung up the phone. The crack on the window split again.


     John managed to find a Best Buy offering curb-side pick-up service in West Hollywood. He placed an order online with his phone for the cheapest laptop in stock, and he received an e-mail no less than thirty minutes later notifying him it was ready.

     As he drove along the empty side streets noting the occasional pedestrian in a face mask, he realized that the more alarming sight was of those not wearing one. He supposed he was thankful that at least no one seemed to be rioting or looting. Yet.

He eventually drove past the park that he knew was the only one within miles of his apartment. He pulled over and got out of the car. The playground was empty, the grass hadn’t been mowed in weeks, and tree branches fallen from the Santa Ana winds held brown, dying leaves. John walked over to the bleachers near the public baseball diamond and sat down. He began to cry.

John wasn’t sure how many minutes passed until he felt something cold and wet rubbing his hand. He looked down at the dog, a black and white border collie, wagging its tail and trying to nuzzle further into his arms. He laughed and pet it.

“HEY!” a man’s voice yelled behind him.

John turned to see the older man in a face mask and latex gloves standing in the parking lot holding a leash with nothing attached.

“You realize you could be passing the disease to my dog, and then I get it from my dog, right?”

John gritted his teeth, stood up, and took a step towards the stranger. He smirked when he saw the man jump back.

“Then why is it off leash?” John asked.

The man only stared.

John took another step forward. The man backed up again. John couldn’t remember the last time he confronted someone, let alone physically. But the self-righteous arrogance of this fucking idiot, John thought.

“You stay away from me!” the man yelled.

John removed his mask and made himself cough. “Or what?”

The man made a short, clicking sound with his mouth. And suddenly a ferocious pain shot through John’s hand. The dog’s jaws were clamped onto it. John screamed until he heard two short whistles. The dog let go and ran towards its master.

His hand wasn’t bleeding, but it was already starting to bruise in the shapes of bite marks.

“Get your own pet,” the man snarled before walking away with the dog trotting behind.


On his way back from Best Buy, John made sure to stop by another essential business: the liquor store for another bottle of Glenlivet single malt and a single pound bag of pistachios. As he removed the groceries on his kitchen counter and proceeded to clean them with a disinfectant wipe as usual, he became aware of the noises coming from his office. Scratching, clicking, and occasional high-pitched squealing noises.

After John poured himself a drink, he picked up the bag of pistachios and approached the office. When he opened the door, he saw exactly what he expected—jagged pieces of glass on the floor, and two squirrels running amok in the room. John watched them freeze in place as he held up a single pistachio. He moved it from right to left and grinned as the squirrels stood on their hind legs, following the nut’s every move.

“Now sit,” John drawled, lowering the nut with his freshly bandaged hand.


By the following Autumn, John was surprised by how little he missed the office at Sterling Global. He couldn’t even remember what it looked like all these months later, but he noticed every time Edith Johnson from accounting added another plant to the living room that she telecommuted from. He also became aware of how Mike Henderson wore a pajama shirt on camera every Monday and Friday, and he noticed that when Stacy Kleinman was stressed out her nostrils flared not dissimilarly from his pets’, Charlie and Ringo. They were perched on each of his shoulders as he dialed into the quarterly review meeting.

“Well, hey-hey, there’s our employee of the month!” Luke bolstered. “How about a round of applause for John? Pinsky just doubled down on their contract for another season thanks to this guy! You’re truly a master over any environment, my friend.”

John listened to the claps and whistles emitting from his laptop speakers, and he laughed as he fed each of his squirrels. He felt the discarded shells tumble down his back, and he took comfort knowing that at least the world had no shortage of nuts.

April 24, 2020 23:29

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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