Squir­rel Trou­ble at Up­lands

New England Review - - Music - Castle Free­man Jr.

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.

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