It was mid-April and the days were nice enough again to take my lunch breaks in the park. Somehow every year this is a revelation: it can’t have ever been so green before. It can’t possibly have been so warm, last time around.
In my cubicle it was still winter, would always be winter.
It had been a strategic decision when I first got the reservationist job: no tchotkes, no photos, no plants. Just grey everything. A way to trick myself into believing that I wouldn’t stay. This was just a new-to-the-city, young-and-figuring-it-out, tide-me-over gig. I would quit before year one was out.
Okay, before year two was out, then.
Before year three was out or god help me.
So it was a bleak route to hopeful that my cubicle took, desolate as a reminder that this was not real life. Real life was outside, on a bench for an hour in the middle of the day. The warm sun, the cool wind. Lunch breaks in the park were a refresher course on sky.
The only problem was all the damn squirrels. The squirrels of Madison Square Park were city squirrels and foreign tourists fed them, posed with them, played paparazzi to the pests. So the squirrels had all become fucking entitled little assholes. One ran right across my lap — across my lap — one day and up a tree.
When something that ought to be scared of me isn’t, I become scared of it.
So I screamed and dropped my sandwich. I felt like I’d been violated.
When I looked up I saw Linda Leigh.
Linda. From work. Feeding the squirrels.
Linda Leigh was someone I had no feelings about at all until I caught her scattering bread crumbs that day, a wide smile spread out across her flat, circle face. After that, I was curious. I mean, what kind of maniac, you know?
So I set about befriending her. I cornered her at the coffee maker and accosted her with “How’s it going?”s in the elevator. I wore her down with my best work stories — the celebrities who’d called: which ones were nice and which ones were mean and which ones had finicky requirements: never by a window, booth if you have it. I toned down the sarcasm. I softened the resting bitch face. I ended up getting pretty close to Linda Leigh.
Linda was from a small town in the middle of the country, had come to New York just to be in New York, didn’t want to be an artist or anything, just wanted to be here. She was still starry-eyed with the city, didn’t even mind the subways, but went to the park whenever she was feeling low (Linda was the type of person who said cutesy things like feeling low).
Linda liked stories of celebrities being nice better than stories of celebrities being mean.
Linda took five sugars in her coffee.
And Linda had a boyfriend. It was one of the main things about her, part of every sentence she spoke: Last night at dinner with Boyfriend. Well, you know, My Boyfriend. As The Boyfriend always says.
I never outright asked her about the squirrel-thing but I came to understand it as some kind of Disney Princess fantasy. In her head, they must have been cartoons. I thought that somehow she must have failed to sense the threat of them, or know to be wary of their unearned arrogance.
Then one day Linda came into work all fidgety, holding her shoulders like the victim of a lightning strike, because she and her Boyfriend/My Boyfriend/The Boyfriend broke up.
She told me all about it by the Keurig machine:
“He left me,” she said. “I moved all the way to New York for him, and he didn’t even care.”
“I thought you just wanted to be here?” I asked.
“I can’t effing stand it here,” she said.
She talked to me less and less after the breakup, ditched me during lunch breaks. Instead I’d see her across the park, feeling low, I’m sure, and feeding the squirrels. Day after day, feeding the squirrels.
In my head I was so condescending, thinking how if I’d been dumped I would do something about it. Cut off my hair. Have revenge sex with one of his friends. Something.
Eventually Linda stopped coming to work all together. Ghosted the place without ever giving notice. But on my lunch breaks I’d still see her in the park. After a month of this, it had reached a new weird: Linda, standing in one of the concrete pits that would turn back into a fountain as soon as the summer came, with squirrels circled around her feet like worshippers at a temple, their little bodies held perfectly still, waiting to be smiled on by their benevolent god. I watched, transfixed, as Linda relinquished bits of bread, sparingly, according to some logic I couldn’t understand. I watched the squirrel’s chubby little cheeks move, their sharp little teeth chomp, and felt that familiar fear. Fear of the squirrels. And now fear of Linda too.
Then one day she wasn’t there. I didn’t think much of it — maybe she’d finally moved on — until I saw the headline on my phone, the reports of the odd arrest. Her name, her unflattering mugshot, the articles detailing the injuries sustained by her ex. The scratches down his face, the chunks of flesh taken from his arms and legs. The squirrels had rushed him en masse, climbed his body like a tree, dug in their claws and jesus.
I looked around the park where I was sitting on my lunch break.
There wasn’t an evil little varment in sight.
Phoebe Cramer is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her short fiction has appeared in Slink Chunk Press and Bard Papers. She can be found, very occasionally, on twitter @PhoebeLCramer