Squirrel Trouble at Uplands
Uplands, where Elsie would be safe, where Blake wouldn’t look for her, proved to be a large, lofty, white-clapboarded, black-shuttered cliff of a house five miles from what seemed to be the nearest village. Elsie reached it sometime after three in the morning. She turned off her engine and sat exhausted, looking at the house, at the woods behind and around it, at the cold northern stars in their rural profusion wheeling above the peaked gable. Her engine cooled, ticked, sighed, was still. She had been driving for thirteen hours.
She left the car and made her way to the house by starlight. She found the key on the nail where Helen had said it would be. Inside, in the kitchen, she put her suitcase down. She felt for a wall switch, found one, and turned on the lights. She should call Helen and tell her she had arrived. She didn’t. She didn’t have the strength. She might have called. Helen was five hours ahead: eight in the morning in London. She would be up, but Hugh might not have left for the embassy yet; he might answer the phone, and Elsie didn’t want to talk to him. She didn’t want to talk to anybody. She left the kitchen and went through the downstairs turning on the lights.
In a sitting room, she found a couch with a heavy blanket folded on its back. She took off her shoes, she took off her dress, she lay down on the couch with her head on her arms. She would call Helen in an hour. She turned onto her side under the warm blanket.
She woke with a start, her heart galloping. Overhead, thumps and bumps and a kind of pattering and scrabbling. Immediately she thought: Blake. No. Impossible. (Or was what she thought: not yet?) She sat up. Yellow sunlight streamed through the windows, and in the bright day all the lights were on. Elsie listened to the noises above. Mice. An old, closed-up house far out in the country would of course be full of mice. She stood, wrapped the blanket around herself, and went to the stairs. As she began to mount, the noises stopped. On the second floor she found four bedrooms and a bath. All were empty, all were silent. Elsie turned to go back downstairs. As she reached the foot of the stairs, the telephone in the kitchen rang. Elsie went to it. She looked at it. She touched it. She picked it up. “You’re there,” said Helen. The overseas connection echoed. “Yes.” “You got off all right, did you? No trouble?” “No. I left for school as usual. He had a double shift. Has. He won’t know
Castle Freeman Jr.
I’m gone, even now, maybe.” “Good. What did you tell the school?” “That my sister was ill. That I was needed, couldn’t say how long I’d be away.” “They took that?” “Sure. They know you’re over there. They know me. I never miss school. They’ll get a sub.” “Good. What about the house? Is everything there all right?” “I guess so. I went right to sleep, on the couch. There are mice upstairs. They woke me up. They run around.”
“They’re not right upstairs,” said Helen. “They’re in the attic. They’re not mice, either. They’re squirrels. Enormous great gray things. They live in the attic. We try to shut them out. But they get in somehow, don’t they? I’ll call Eli. He’ll come with his trap.” “Who’s Eli?” “Oh, Eli’s a kind of caretaker, I suppose,” said Helen. “He’s useful when he chooses to be. He lives on the next hill. Hugh calls him the spirit of the place. Quite a character, Eli is. You’ll enjoy him.” “Does he have to come while I’m here?” “Hugh will want him to. The squirrels make a mess. But Eli won’t come right along. He’ll come when he’s ready. He might not come at all. I’ll call him.” Elsie didn’t speak. “What about supplies?” Helen asked. “There’s not much in the house, I don’t think. Some cans. Did you bring anything?” “No.” “Go to the village, then. Go to Clifford’s. Clifford’s is all right, mostly. Sniff the milk. If they have fish, don’t get any. Do you have money?” “Yes.” “Do you need money?” “No. I have enough money.” “How much?” “Five hundred, about.” “I’m going to wire you money,” said Helen. “There’s a bank branch in the village. You can get it there later today.” “There’s no need.” “There’s every need. I want you to stay there for as long as necessary. I mean that: as long as necessary. I want us to talk every day. I’ll ring. I’ll ring in the evening. If you don’t answer, I’ll ring the police.” “Oh, god, not the police.” “Well, of course, the police. Why not? “He is the police. He’ll know.” “How will he know?” “I don’t know. He will. He’ll have ways of finding out. Police ways. Systems.” “What systems?”
“I don’t know—systems. Systems of information.” “Sweetie, get a grip,” said Helen. “He’s a dumb redneck highway cop in Virginia. He’s not Professor Moriarty.” “West Virginia.” “Well, I mean, that’s worse, isn’t it? Look, Else, I’m not asking. This is how we’re going to proceed. This is how we’re going to get you through. You’re in my house—hugh’s house, my house. You’ll do as I say. You know it’s the best way. It’s the only way. It’s not as though you could change your mind and go back. Is it?” “No. Not now.” “No. So? All right?” “All right.” “We’ll speak tomorrow.” Helen hung up. She wasn’t Elsie’s big sister for nothing.
Blake. Not even Helen denied Blake had the whole package, for looks. “He’s gorgeous enough, isn’t he?” she’d asked Elsie, handing back a snapshot of Blake, dark, curly-haired, bare-chested, grinning in the cockpit of a boat. “He might be in films, mightn’t he?” Films. Elsie had been visiting Helen and Hugh in London. Helen, she found, had begun to sound vaguely British. “What’s he like, then?” Helen had asked. “I don’t know,” said Elsie. “You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been with him for months.” “Three months. No, I meant, he’s not like anybody I’ve ever known.” “I should hope not,” said Helen. She had taken against Blake, or the idea of Blake, from the beginning. “I should hope he wasn’t like anybody you’d know,” said Helen. Helen and Blake had never met. They never would. Blake knew Elsie had a married sister in the UK, but he didn’t know, he couldn’t have known, where. He couldn’t have known Hugh or their twins. And he couldn’t have known about Hugh’s family’s place, Uplands.
Blake didn’t know about Uplands and the rest because nobody had told him. Elsie hadn’t told him. Why hadn’t she? Was it because Elsie in some way knew, even early on, that she shouldn’t, that Helen was right? Was it because she knew some day she would need Blake not to know about Uplands? Was it because of now?
Elsie thought she might as well move into a proper bedroom upstairs. She would be more comfortable there than she had been on the couch, and her being up there might get the squirrels to shut up. She carried her suitcase and the blanket from the couch up the stairs and into the smallest bedroom. She found linens in a closet and made the bed. She opened the curtains and looked out the window. There was her little car, parked in the driveway below. It occurred
Castle Freeman Jr.
to her that if she slept upstairs she would be trapped there should somebody (should somebody?), should Blake enter the house. She would have to jump from an upper window, then, and the windows were high.
She gathered the blanket, picked up her suitcase, and went back downstairs. Later, in the kitchen, she found a can of chili and a bottle of wine. She had the chili for supper that evening, and she drank most of the wine. She hoped it would help her sleep. She hadn’t left the house since she’d walked in the night before.
That night, on the couch, she lay awake. Upstairs, the squirrels weren’t to be heard, but from outdoors, Elsie couldn’t tell where but from some way off, came waves of odd shrieking, laughing sounds, tremulous whoops, now faint, now clearer, as though a loud party were going on in the next street. Elsie lay and listened, but she didn’t sleep. She wasn’t sleeping, she was waiting. She found the wine she’d drunk didn’t help her sleep. It didn’t help her wait. The cries from the party came and went. Wine and parties, parties and wine. Not for the first time, Elsie reflected that she hadn’t always been well served by either. They were four. They had Grant’s car, but Grant said he’d better not drive, he was in bad shape; Rick, Elsie’s blind date, was in worse; and Jill was semiconscious, so Elsie drove. Was that smart? Absolutely, it was not smart; but the band had gone home, and the bar was closed. Time to roll. Elsie got them down the long curving driveway and made the left. She got them out of the state park. Then she drove them into the ditch.
She might have passed out. She was sitting behind the wheel. She looked ahead. There was Blake, in the lights of his cruiser, talking to Grant, making notes. The others had left the car. Rick was locked in the back of the cruiser. Jill, Grant’s fiancée, was leaning over behind the cruiser, being carefully sick into the roadside weeds. Blake was examining their identification. Presently he left them at the cruiser and came to Elsie where she sat alone in the ditched car. “Evening, miss,” said Blake. “You okay?” “I guess so,” said Elsie. “I don’t know.” “Have you had anything to drink tonight, miss?” Elsie giggled. “What do you think?” she asked him. “What do I think?” Blake opened the driver’s door. “You want to come with me, now, please, miss?” he said.
Elsie left the car. She was being arrested. She was being arrested for drunk driving. She let Blake lead her to his cruiser. He opened the passenger door in front and helped her in. Then he came around and took the driver’s seat. “Let’s get you home, miss,” said Blake. “Home?” “Wrecker’s on the way. Sheriff, too. Nobody’s hurt. Your friends will be fine. I’ll take you home.”
“I’m not under arrest?”
“For heaven’s sake, Else. You can’t simply shut yourself up in there, can you? You must eat. Brace up. It’s, what? Two o’clock where you are?” “Yes.” “Have you had your lunch?” “No.” “Go to the village, then,” said Helen. “Get lunch.” “Lunch, miss?”
Elsie had left school at the noon recess for a doctor’s appointment. Parked in front of the building was Blake’s cruiser. Blake was showing a few of the kids the vehicle. Elsie stopped short when she saw him. “Buy you lunch, miss?” He shooed the kids away. “I have a doctor’s appointment, afterwards,” said Elsie. “I’ll take you over there when we’re done. Come on, miss, don’t want to be late for the doctor.” Elsie approached the cruiser. Blake held the door for her. “Wait,” said Elsie. She stepped back. “I mean, wait. Why are you here?” “Take you to lunch.” “But, wait. How? How did you know where to find me?” “I told you the other night, miss. You’re in the system.” Elsie got into the passenger’s seat and waited for Blake to come around and take the wheel. He started the engine, and they pulled away from the school. Elsie wasn’t satisfied.
“You had my license the other night,” she said. “That’s how you got my address. There’s nothing on my license about where I work. How did you know that?”
Blake smiled at her. “You can find about anything you want to on someone if you have the right files,” he said. “Okay,” said Elsie. “Where do you get the right files, then?” “The file place.” They went to a barbecue stand a little out in the country. They sat at a picnic table, side by side. They had the table to themselves. Blake kept turning to look at her. Elsie was a little shy. She wasn’t a child; she knew when she was being courted. But she was used to a certain amount of time being taken, a certain amount of going around and around, a certain diffidence, a sense of things withheld, to be discovered presently. Blake withheld nothing.
“I never thanked you for helping me the night we wrecked,” she told him as they sat together. “Yes, you did.” “I did?” “You don’t remember, maybe. You weren’t yourself.” Elsie laughed. “I was hammered, you mean. But not myself? Really? How would you know? Is that in the system, too? How people are when they’re
“Are you going into camp tomorrow?” the counter man asked the trooper. “Going tonight,” said the trooper. “Leighton’s been up there a week.” “Uh-oh,” said the counter man. “In that case, I’d probably better sell you some more beer, hadn’t I?” “I’m expecting there will be plenty,” the trooper said. “There always is.” “Fairchild’s boy took an eight-pointer off Diamond this week,” said the counter man. “I saw it,” said the officer. “I hope there’s another.” “There’s always another,” said the counter man. “Same as the beer: there’s always plenty. Good luck, anyway.” He turned to Elsie. “Miss?” he said. Elsie clutched her basket. She didn’t move. “Miss?” she said. The counter man nodded at her. He smiled. “You checking out, here, miss?” he asked. “Oh, yes, sorry,” said Elsie. Back at Uplands, carrying her bags into the house, she heard explosions. Shots. Somebody was shooting. Not far off, somebody was firing a gun. Not a gun—guns. More than one. Bowm . . . bowm . . . bowm; brang . . . brang-brang; bam-bam-bam. It was either guns or fireworks, and it wasn’t fireworks. Elsie hurried into the house and locked the door. She stood in the kitchen and listened to the shots. They seemed farther away than they had a moment ago, but was that simply because she was indoors? “Shots?” asked Helen when she called. “You mean gunshots?” “Lots of gunshots. Dozens.” “Hunters,” said Helen. “It’s hunting season, it must be. Deer? I’m not sure. I think deer. Everybody there hunts.”
“I got that, but this wasn’t somebody shooting a deer—bang. This was many shots, very many. It went on for an hour. It sounded like a battle.”
“Well, I expect they’re practicing, aren’t they? Today’s Wednesday? The weekend must be the opening of the season, I expect. They’re getting ready, that’s all.” “Getting ready?” “You poor thing: you’ve really got the wind up, haven’t you? Not that it’s surprising. You’re frightened. Of course, you are. Of course he frightens you. He frightens me.” “I thought you said he’s nothing but a dumb redneck traffic cop.” “I did say it. He is that. He’s also crazy and dangerous. I’ve said that, too. Haven’t I, Else?” “Yes.” “More than once.” “Yes.” “Have you got the money?” “No.” “Why not?”
“What, are you going to bring it to bed?” “To bed? It’s not in the bed. It’s on the floor.” “Well, but, could you at least put it on the dresser?” “Wouldn’t be much use to us way over there, would it, miss?” “To us?” asked Elsie. “You bet, us.” That was Blake. From the beginning, he had bound her, or he thought he had, he acted as though he had. He was protective, he was attentive, he was affectionate. He wanted her all the time. Did Elsie like that? Absolutely, she liked it. She loved it. But, she found, there was an obverse, there was a price. He didn’t like her friends. He thought Grant was a moron, Jill, a slut. (Rick had moved on.) He wanted Elsie all the time, but that meant he wanted all of her. He called her seven or eight times a day, at school, at home. He wanted to drive her to school each morning and pick her up in the afternoon. Elsie told him that wouldn’t work because she often had meetings after school. It was a lie: she seldom had meetings after school; but Blake accepted it. He left off insisting on being her driver. Many days, however, he would be waiting in the cruiser when she left school. He would follow her home.
Home. Right off, Blake wanted them to live together. Elsie wasn’t sure. Blake pressed her. Elsie said her bed wasn’t big enough for two people. Blake bought them a new bed. Three men from the bed store came along with it to get it into Elsie’s apartment. Elsie gave in then. Why wouldn’t she? Weren’t she and Blake a couple? Weren’t they in love? Didn’t she want to live with Blake? If she didn’t, then what was she doing?
So, there was the bed, and there were the guns. Blake had the policeissue sidearm he wore on his belt when he was working. He had the gun in his waistband, another that he wore on his right ankle, another in the glove box of his car, another in a compartment in the driver’s door. He had two shotguns in the trunk. Blake had guns the way a cat has kittens, the way a rich woman has shoes. There’s always another kitten. There’s always another pair of shoes. “What do you need so many for?” she asked him. “Need, miss?” said Blake. “You don’t know what you need until you need it. Then you’d best have a choice. You see?” “No.” “It’s like having a pony in your yard,” said Blake. “You really love that pony. You couldn’t stand for anything to get in there and hurt it, any dog or anything. So you put a fence around your yard, right?” “Okay . . .” “So then, if you’re going to do that, you’d best make that fence go all around the yard, hadn’t you? So there’s no way anything can get in. So you know that pony’s safe. It’s safe all the time. That little pony that you love so much.”
Elsie counted days. She had been at Uplands three days, four if you included the day she traveled. It was five nights ago, then, that she had awakened in bed beside Blake to feel him touching her belly. She turned to him, then she froze.