Sheriff Wiggins scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh.
“What is it, Sherriff?” his scrawny young deputy Sam inquired automatically, gazing dreamily out the window as if his thoughts were roaming among the tree-lined streets of the town.
“Pete Grundy says he saw a funny-lookin’ squirrel,” the Sheriff answered.
The deputy guffawed, his attention abruptly reclaimed. “A squirrel?”
“A squirrel,” Wiggins affirmed. “Claims he saw it run and then jump clear across Old Logjam Road, from one side to the other, without touchin’ ground.”
“That ol’ Pete,” Sam smiled, chuckling and shaking his head as if reality really was sometimes more amusing than dreams.
“Come on,” the Sheriff ordered. “We’re goin’ to check it out.”
“Why, Sheriff!” Sam answered in disbelief. “You know Grundy shoots whiskey daily startin’ at noon.”
“Sure ‘nough. But it’s only nine,” the Sheriff replied, angling his clean-shaven chin towards the clock on the wall.
“Since when do we concern ourselves with critters like squirrels?” the deputy demanded suspiciously, his eyes narrowing like a magnifying glass attempting to focus a beam of sunshine into a ray of kindling fire.
“Since Grundy asked me to, and since I owe him a favor,” Wiggins replied flatly, his manner clearly indicating that the discussion was closed, leaving Sam to wonder under what circumstances and in what capacity the Sheriff had found himself in the debt of the town drunk. “Besides,” he added, in somewhat conciliatory fashion, “I been meaning to set up a speed trap on that road for a while anyhow; it won’t hurt us none to keep our eyes open while we’re out there.”
Their watchful eyes nabbed numerous speeders, but no peculiar squirrels, only the rather ordinary ones who rushed heedlessly across the highway in an effort to evade the vehicles which, resplendent and rickety alike, cruised recklessly around the curves of the road as if it were their own private racecourse. When the daylight at last began to dim underneath the generous canopy of trees, and suppertime was drawing near, Wiggins decided to collect his antsy-pantsed deputy and call it a day. Sam had wandered off a little ways into the wood; was taking a leak at the base of a tough-looking shrub when the Sheriff heard him calling softly, “Come and take a look at this, Sheriff.”
Wiggins snorted, stamping his foot impatiently. “You got nothing there I want to see.”
“Not that!” Sam replied in a huff, hastily zipping up his trousers. “There’s a funny creature over here.”
At that, the Sheriff stepped over the guardrail and strode the dozen paces into the wood to join his befuddled deputy. Squatting on the ground not ten feet in front of them, staring intently at the strangers, was a bushy-tailed brown squirrel. The Sheriff nearly scoffed; made ready to call Sam a fool for having a conniption over a common squirrel, when he, too, noticed that there was something strange about it. Its face was all wrong. Its eyes weren’t off to the side, but on the front of its head, like a cat or a dog. And it didn’t look at you like a squirrel normally did either, the way their eyes never seemed to focus on anything, but more like a larger animal might, as if it recognized you for what you were.
The Sheriff and his deputy both stood gaping for a time at the oddly formed creature, until at last, evidently becoming bored with the contest it had so obviously won, it bounded nonchalantly away, leaving the two men standing dubiously dumbstruck at the edge of the darkening forest. Finally Wiggins nodded to himself as if in affirmation and said, “Let’s go,” to Sam, who at once hurried toward their waiting cruiser and its reassuring promise of punctual homecoming.
Wiggins had just cranked the engine when the whoosh of rubber rolling rapidly over asphalt assaulted their ears from around the bend right behind them, forewarning them that another speeder was approaching. Tensely they waited in anticipation of the day’s last catch, Sam quickly raising the radar gun to clock the offender. But when the unfamiliar sedan flew past them in a flurry of dead leaves and loose pebbles, the Sheriff didn’t punch the gas, but instead sat gazing at the road in an apparent stupor until Sam elbowed him in the arm.
“Come on, Sheriff, don’t you wanna nab that guy?” Sam prodded anxiously, perplexed by this unnatural ruffling of the Sheriff’s usual unbreakably calm demeanor. “Looked like an out-of-towner, even!”
Wiggins paused before speaking, removing his hat and running his fingers distractedly through the fine bristles that lined his short-shaven head. “Thought I saw something,” he said finally, reaching for his holster and stroking it as if for reassurance. “Flyin’ up over the road as that car went by. Like a small animal jumping. Jumpin’ on awfully big legs.”
The Sheriff spent most of the following day on the old-fashioned telephone at the stationhouse, playing unmusical tunes with its big square buttons while he scratched notes and doodles in the margins of his giant desk calendar. Who did you call about deformed squirrels? Luckily he had a buddy in the capital, who, with no small reservations, cleared him to talk to his buddy at the capital who might know something about someone who might know someone he could maybe talk to about it. Sam’s amusement with this prolonged process had wilted by late morning, and by mid-afternoon, he was heartily bored.
“Come on, Sheriff,” he whined, peeling the chipped ivory paint from the windowsill while Wiggins sat fiddling with the phone cord, on a seemingly interminable hold for the nineteenth time that day. “Let’s do somethin’, huh? What makes you think anybody cares about the squirrels around here, anyway?”
The Sheriff silenced him with one finger as the phone burst briefly into life. A moment later he was holding his hand over the mouthpiece and gloating, “Washington cares, that’s who. They’re connecting me now.”
Sam listened with greater interest while the Sheriff recounted the story of the two squirrels to the party in Washington, wondering if they had already sent for those men in the white coats to fetch his boss when the call was over. But the conversation seemed peaceable enough, and the Sheriff satisfied as he concluded, “Yes, I sure will do that. Yes, I’ve got the number. Thank you, sir.” He returned the big plastic receiver to its proper place, rubbing his ear in discomfort as he did so, and then tilted back in his chair and gazed thoughtfully out the window that Sam had so lately been denuding while the deputy fidgeted in his boots, awaiting an explanation.
“Well, what did they say?!” he finally exploded, when none was forthcoming.
The Sheriff didn’t answer, but merely continued tilting back in his chair, and then leaning it forward, and then back again while the floorboards creaked irritably beneath his shifting weight.
“How much do you know about evolution, Sam?” he said at length, bringing the chair to a halt and last giving the flooring a rest.
Sam shrugged. “Not much,” he admitted.
“Well, I learned about it in college,” Wiggins replied casually.
“You mean in those two years you were at State?” Sam scoffed.
“Those two years is what made me a Sheriff, and you a deputy,” Wiggins answered scathingly, causing Sam to cringe and blush. “Matter of fact, I learned all manner of useful things in those two years. See, every so often in nature there’s a mistake called a genetic mutation. Most of ‘em are bad, but every so often they’re advantageous to the creatures that get ‘em, and they have lots of babies and pass those traits on to all their children. You know, like with giraffes. The ones with long necks could get better food, so nature kept favorin’ ones with long necks until they grew into what you see today. Get it?”
Sam nodded, his self-esteem blissfully restored.
“Well, what do you suppose might happen if there were somethin’ in a creature’s environment that was real dangerous? Maybe it’s a deadly disease; people who were naturally immune to that sickness would outlive the others, wouldn’t they? And then pass their genes on to their kin, making them immune, too?” Sam nodded again, thinking that maybe you did learn some pretty interesting things in college after all. “An’ if the disease was bad enough, and widespread enough, eventually only the people who were immune to it might be left. Now what do you suppose is the most dangerous thing in the world to a squirrel?”
Sam thought a moment, scratching his skinny thigh nervously with spindly fingers before his face lit up in comprehension. “Rabies!”
“Well, that’s not a bad answer,” the Sheriff conceded. “But most often you don’t find ‘em dead from rabies, do you? You find ‘em dead…”
“…on the road,” the deputy finished the sentence, face glimmering with the hope that he finally understood the point of the Sheriff’s protracted speech. “So a squirrel that grew big legs could jump high over a road and wouldn’t get hit by cars.”
“Exactly!” Wiggins replied. “And you know what else? I been thinkin’ ‘bout that other funny squirrel we saw, the one with eyes up here, that looked right at you?” he said, gesturing towards his own steely grays. “See, that ain’t natural for a squirrel. A squirrel is a prey animal; I mean, other creatures eat it. And normally a prey animal has eyes on the sides of its head, so it can see all around it, like, and tell if somethin’s comin’ after it. Predatory animals, like a wolf or a lion, they got eyes more facing forward; they get better depth perception that way, which makes ‘em better hunters. So if a squirrel’s got eyes in the front of his head, I can only think of two reasons for it. One, it helps him figure out how close cars are, and how fast they’re comin’, so he knows whether it’s safe to cross the street or not.”
“You always see ‘em runnin’ back and forth, like they can’t decide!” Sam interjected excitedly.
“That’s exactly right, an’ that’s how a lot of ‘em get hit. They start goin’ and then stop.” He paused. “The other possibility is that maybe the squirrels are learnin’ to hunt.”
“That’d sure be a sight,” the deputy said with wonder.
“It sure would,” Wiggins replied, gazing out the window again in troubled contemplation, as if wondering whether, even now, a giant squirrel with big teeth and a bigger appetite was approaching their small and poorly defended shack.
“But wait a minute, Sheriff!” Sam exclaimed after a thoughtful moment, tearing the Sheriff away from his disturbing fantasy. “What did Washington say about it?”
Sheriff Wiggins waved his hand dismissively. “They said they were trained squirrels of a different breed from some travelling Russian circus. Said a bunch of ‘em escaped into the wild, and that it was nothing to worry about.”
Sam resumed his struggle to comprehend the Sheriff’s complacency, scratching his leg even more vigorously before moving on to his hairless chest. “But if that’s all it is, then what’s the big deal? They’re just foreign squirrels.”
“The big deal, Sam,” the Sheriff replied, his steely eyes glinting, “Is that they told me to call again if I saw any more like it. Now when did anybody in Washington tell you to call them again unless it was somethin’ really serious? Russian squirrels, my ass. I’d sooner believe that ol’ Pete Grundy went on the wagon.”
Agent Matthews scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh. “There’s been another sighting,” she said gruffly to her colleague, who was intently scrutinizing a complicated computer graph at the desk beside hers.
“Where?” Collins answered, creasing his eyebrows into an arch that wiggled like the lines connecting the plot points he was examining so closely.
Matthews slapped a spot on the map that hung on the wall beside her, frowning as if she found it irritating or even offensive.
“That means it’s spreading,” Collins declared unnecessarily, glancing back at his graph and its dancing maze of circles and arcs. “Almost every state now. What kind was it?”
“Them,” Matthews corrected him, pressing her temples as if to stave off an impending headache. “The jumper and the one with the funny eyes.”
“Both in one place? That’s odd.”
“The Sheriff who called said it was on a busy rural thoroughfare. Everyone in town takes it as a shortcut to the next town over. He’d set up a speed trap on it.”
“Sounds conducive to both varieties, then.” Then, dropping his voice to a troubled whisper, Collins inquired, “No more of that other kind yet, are there?”
“Not yet,” Matthews replied in an equally hushed tone, discreetly leaning towards her partner as if confiding a top secret. “Speaking of which, we should head up to the test site before the trials are over.”
It was short ride on the elevator from the orderly cube of fluorescent-lit underground offices to the dim, thickly-forested surface where the site had been constructed. A man in a loose, long-sleeved lab coat stood hunched over a clipboard taking notes. He was wearing violet earplugs, presumably to cut the loud rumble of motors that echoed like a pride of full-grown lions chasing a fleeing gazelle. But when he saw Matthews and Collins approaching, he signaled for a stoppage, and the two sedans, two pickup trucks, and two motorcycles that had been revolving in great loops around them shuddered to a halt.
“Did you get him yet?” Collins queried.
The operator consulted his notes. “Eight times. At least once with each vehicle.”
“No effect,” he smiled with obvious admiration.
“Where is it now?” Matthews inquired, scrunching up her nose as if trying to pick up its scent.
“On the inside, at the west end.”
The agents lifted their binoculars and directed their gazes accordingly. The test site was an oval track, constructed of thick asphalt and built in the midst of a dense wood that had been domed and walled round about to keep out curiosity-seekers who might venture this far into the forest. Even as they watched from their vantage point in the center, they observed the crane dumping the pile of acorns on the outside of the track, while the various vehicles resumed their ceaseless race around it. In a few moments, a bold squirrel emerged snuffling at the edge of the wood, evidently smelling the nuts across the way, and sprinted across the road just as one of the pickups was approaching. All three of the observers flinched as the furry animal was brutally crushed under the truck’s heavy tires, its body toppling backwards in the windy wake of the two-ton machine. But even before the vehicle had rounded the next bend, the squirrel had shaken itself and was on its feet again, resuming its race to the other side of the road as if it had merely lost its footing.
“Remarkable!” the man-in-charge exclaimed as they watched a heavy metal cage plop precipitously down on the animal as it frisked about the pile of acorns it had mastered through its desperate courage.
“I still can’t believe that it could… that it could function like that,” Matthews said with awe, slapping her fingers against her forehead as if trying to force her brain to comprehend what was happening.
“It is incredible,” the supervisor agreed. “But not entirely without precedent. Didn’t you ever have a hamster as a child? Those creatures can flatten their bodies enough to crawl underneath a door.”
“But this…!” Matthews interjected, wiping her sweat-fogged glasses with her blouse. “This is an extreme adaptation, isn’t it?”
“Extreme circumstances produce extreme measures,” the supervisor theorized with affected superiority. “What manner of animal survived following the asteroid which drove the dinosaurs to extinction? Small furry mammals; ratlike creatures. And what is a squirrel but a glorified rat?”
He smiled complacently and went back to his notes as Collins and Matthews turned to go. But halfway to the elevator they heard muffled yelling and looked back to find the supervisor frantically waving his arms in order to catch their attention. “Wait, I nearly forgot!” he shouted over the noise of cars that was again resonating throughout the dome. “The litter that she bore last week. It seems that she’s passed it on.”
The agents gaped, their mouths hanging open like ill-conceived flytraps. “The offspring are the same?”
“It appears so, now that they have grown. But they would have to be, anyway, to have survived in the womb during the trials, wouldn’t you think?” Again he smiled broadly, as if pleased with the impressive accomplishments of his subject of study, while the agents retreated towards the elevator.
The following week, Matthews and Collins were still puzzling over the data from the track when another call came in from Sheriff Wiggins.
“Yes, Sheriff,” Matthews answered breathlessly. “Have you seen any more of those odd squirrels?”
“No, not those,” the Sheriff responded. “But a real funny thing happened night before last. You see, I got a call from Ol’ Lady Teasdale asking me to come out ‘cause she’d run over a squirrel. Squished it good, she said. Now if it were anyone else, I’d tell ‘em to go hang, but she’s a dear, tenderhearted thing – the kind that calls the fire department to fetch a cat out of a tree – and she was real upset, cryin’ and all ‘cause she’d hurt a poor defenseless creature, so I said I’d go.”
Wiggins paused to take a deep breath while Collins and Matthews bent over the telephone like children preparing to bob for apples. “Now here’s the strange part. When I got there, it turned out she hadn’t exactly run over the squirrel; it was more like she had parked on top of it. And she was jes’ standin’ there starin’ down at it lyin’ quietly under the wheel, so I says to her, ‘Well, I don’t see that there’s much we can do about it now ‘scept give it a decent burial. If you’ll be so kind as to lend me your keys, Ma’am, I’ll, uh, release it and set free its heavenly soul.’ And that makes her stop cryin’ so she hands over the keys and I get in the car and reverse it a couple of feet, and Ol’ Lady Teasdale starts screaming so loud I think I’ve run over her foot so I stop the car and jump out.
“When I get to her, she don’t look hurt, but she’s still hysterical, shouting, ‘It’s a miracle, Sheriff, a miracle! Call the pastor!’
“ ‘Wait a minute now,’ I said, ‘The pastor’s probably busy workin’ out his sermon for tomorrow, so let’s not disturb him unless we’re sure we got to – what miracle are you talkin’ ‘bout here?’
“ ‘The squirrel, Sheriff! It just jumped up and ran away, not even hurt.’
“An’ I looked down and sure enough, that squirrel was nowhere to be seen. I checked the ground an’ I checked the car an’ I checked all around the yard an’ I even checked the bottom of the old lady’s shoes but that squirrel weren’t nowhere. And the weird thing is that I know I saw it flattened there under that wheel, and, as a matter of fact, I pulled out a little tuft o’ grayish-brown hair from her tire, which proved we weren’t both seein’ things. I even searched the driveway for a hole that it mighta been layin’ in, but there wasn’t one, and her tires were solid, too. And I jes’ plumb can’t understand how a simple ol’ squirrel could survive that kind of crushing unless it had like, a rubber skeleton, or organs that could flatten themselves, or move out of the way when they wanted to, or somethin’ sophisticated an’ unnatural like that.”
Matthews and Collins examined one another searchingly. “Well, naturally that’s ridiculous,” Matthews said shakily into the speakerphone, her voice barely inclining to a whisper. “There must be some other explanation. A rational one,” she added hastily.
“Well, I am sure glad to hear you say that, Ma’am,” Wiggins replied with feeling. “Because I tell you what, I’d be darn scared of a squirrel that had eyes like a wildcat, could leap over a two-lane highway in one jump, and not even be injured by a ton of metal lyin’ plumb on top of it. With as quick as they make babies, creatures like that would overrun the country in no time,” he concluded sagely.
“We appreciate your call,” Collins snapped, cutting off Matthews, who was on the verge of agreeing with the Sheriff. “Call us again with any other news.”
The clash of the phone being reinserted into its base rang out in the comparative silence that followed.
“I think maybe you were right,” Collins said slowly, after a long pause. “Nothing else we’ve tried so far has worked. Maybe there is something to be done with the owls.”
“Everybody likes owls!” Matthews exclaimed hopefully. “But if they evolve to catch the super-squirrels, won’t they become like, super-owls?”
“That’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Collins answered grimly.
“Just imagine…” Matthews said faintly, almost dreamily, “All this, a result of people driving automobiles. Automobiles driving evolution!”
And back at his office, Sheriff Wiggins was installing bars on the window of the stationhouse and saying to his deputy, “I don’t care what you call it, Sam. God, Nature, evolution… it sure does work in mysterious ways.”
Originally published in Separate Worlds, June 2013.
Cover photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandj98 and http://animalphotos.info/a/
I actually had the idea that sparked this story a number of years ago. I don’t recall how I came up with it exactly, but one day I started thinking about the evolutionary process and how it relates to the impact of man on the environment. There’s no doubt that humans are greatly, if not solely, responsible for the extinction of a large number of species, hunting and habitat destruction being two of the primary means by which animal and plant life have gravely diminished in a world in which humans have become predominant. However, if there’s one thing that evolutionary theory teaches us, it’s that life is incredibly adaptable. Remember learning in school about the changes that took place in the moth population during the Industrial Revolution in England? Within a very short space of time the predominantly white moth population became a predominantly black one – because moths had a greater chance of survival when they were better able to blend in with their new, sootier environment. And they reproduce quickly enough to put those physical adaptations in place in the blink of a human eye.
So it seems reasonable to suppose that similar changes would occur in other species whose environments have been severely impacted by human activities. Indeed, it may be those species that are best able to adapt to a human-dominated landscape that will continue to thrive into the next century. The ant. The cockroach. The pigeon. The squirrel.
I actually think it would make for an interesting scientific study, if anyone were sufficiently motivated to do it, to monitor the world’s population of squirrels and track whether they’ve adopted physical or cognitive adaptations in response to alterations in their environment. We think we know how squirrels behave. We see them running halfway across the street and then suddenly scurrying back when they see a car coming, which is how they get hit half the time. But what about the ones we don’t see, the ones who are too smart or too nimble to get caught in traffic? What if there really is something else going on behind the scenes? Look out! It’s a Squirrel Revolution!
“Squirrel Revolution” is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.