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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Hourglass

Two men, two pints of Guinness, an ethical dilemma... and an hourglass.

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The Hourglass


            Chad Tarlow consulted his watch.  Seven thirty.  Plenty of time for a pint – only one, as usual, both because the beer he liked was expensive, and also because he needed to be lucid when he got back to his apartment.  He still had about five hours of reading and writing to do for his graduate classes, and he’d seen the results of writing papers in an alcohol-induced fog.  He only had two semesters left and he’d have his master’s degree and his teaching license; no sense screwing it up now.
            He sat at the bar, and gave a smile to Valerie, the cute bartender.  Valerie, he knew, was taken, in a long-term relationship with a guy who worked for the college as some kind of environmental researcher.  No use to hit on her.  He did a slow look around the bar, to see if there were any other prospects, but Flanagan’s was pretty dead.  Oh, well, he thought.  Not like I have time for a girlfriend.  He sighed, and turned back to find a foamy pint of Guinness waiting for him.
            “Saw you come in,” Valerie said, grinning and wiping her hands on a towel.
            “I’m getting predictable,” Chad said.
            “Nothing wrong with knowing what you want,” Valerie said, and headed off to the other end of the bar to pour a drink for an elderly man who looked like he’d already had one too many.
            The door opened, letting in a rush of cool autumn air, and a few dead leaves.  Chad looked up from his pint and saw, with a pang of disappointment, that the newcomer was a young man.  He was perhaps 25, with tousled curly hair, dark eyes, and an angular jaw that was in need of a shave.  He stopped for a moment, and glanced around the place as if looking for someone.
            Not many single women here tonight, bud, Chad thought.  Hope you weren’t counting on getting any.
            The man seemed to consider leaving, then with a little shrug came up to the bar, sitting two barstools away.  Valerie came over to the newcomer.  “What can I get you?” she asked.
            “You have Guinness on tap?”
            “Yup.”
            “A pint, then,” he said, and slid a ten-dollar bill toward her.
            She drew the pint, and while it was settling she gave him his change, and said, “You from around here?  Haven’t seen you in here before.”
            “I live in Skaneateles,” he said.  “My first time in here.”
            She slid the pint toward him.  “Nice town, Skaneateles,” she said.
            “That it is.”
            Valerie went to attend to the elderly gentleman, who was waving at her in a rather woozy fashion, leaving Chad and the newcomer with their pints and the awkward silence that always descends between people who are strangers but who are forced to be near each other by circumstance.
            “What do you do in Skaneateles?” Chad finally said, feeling that he couldn’t just sit there without saying anything, drink his beer, and then leave.  But once said, it sounded ridiculous – an empty sentence, like “Have a nice day.”
            But the newcomer smiled just a little, and said, “I’m a writer.”
            “Really?  What do you write?”
            “Novels.  Science fiction, mainly, and some fantasy.  Mostly speculative stuff.”
            “That’s cool.”  Chad swiveled a little towards him.  “I’ve always wondered how writers think of their plots.  Especially you science fiction guys – I mean, you not only have to make up your plot and characters and all, you have to invent a whole world.”
            The man smiled again, and took a sip of his pint.  “I get asked that a lot,” he said.  “By the way, my name’s Aaron.”  He extended his hand, which Chad shook.
            “Chad.  I’m a grad student in education.  Heading toward teaching physics in high school – provided, of course, that I can get a job.”
            Aaron nodded.  “Not easy, these days.”
            “But you work from home.  Pretty cool.  You just write stories, and your customers come to you.”
            He looked down.  “Something like that.”  He glanced over at the window for a moment, again seeming like he was looking for something or someone.  Then he turned back toward Chad.  “It’s usually the plots that get me stuck.  It can take a long time to work out plot points, because in science fiction, everything’s got to hang together.  The readers immediately pick up on it if there’s an inconsistency.”
            “How do you work it out when you get stuck?”
            Aaron shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Usually the solution just comes to me sooner or later.  I’m not sure from where.  But when I get badly stuck, sometimes it takes weeks to figure my way through it.”  He paused.  “In fact, I’m trying to work something out right now.  It’s why I went for a drive today – to try to clear my brain and see if I could figure out how the story should go.”
            “What are you stuck on?” Chad asked.
            “You want me to tell you?” Aaron said, his eyebrows lifting a little.  “I don’t want to bore you.”
            “It won’t bore me.  Look, dude, I have several hours of reading educational philosophy when I get home.  Anything you could come up with would be fascinating by comparison.”
            Aaron laughed.  “All right,” he said.  “It’s a time travel story.”
            “Okay.”
            “But the time travel isn’t really the point.  I mean, it’s not like The Time Machine, where it went into the fictional technology and all.  Even though it depends on being able to reverse the hourglass, this story focuses more on an ethical dilemma.  And I want to make sure that the story works out the right way.  You know, not corny or trite.  And I’m not sure what to do.”
            “So, when does the character travel to?”
            Aaron took another pull on his pint.  “Here’s the deal.  The main character is a nice guy, but he had a really shitty childhood.  His mother was a complete whackjob.  Borderline personality, controlling, manipulative.”  He gestured with one hand.  “The kind of woman who should never be allowed to have children.  But like a lot of borderlines, she appeared normal enough on first glance; in fact, she was kind of a magnetic personality.  Most people figured out soon enough that she was psycho – she lost job after job, and so on.  And made her son’s life miserable.”
            “Poor kid,” Chad said.
            Aaron nodded.  “The main character’s father was a decent guy, kept trying to help his wife, even though she was kind of beyond help, and stayed in the marriage to shield his son as much as he could.  But the mom was nuts enough that it didn’t really help; and when the main character was 17, his mom had a total flip-out and killed his dad.  She ended up in jail.”
            “Wow,” Chad said.  “Seriously heavy stuff.”
            “Yup.  So, anyway, that’s the setup.  That’s all in the past, in the story; the reader just finds out about it in the first few chapters.  The son grows up, and he’s got a shitload of baggage from what he went through as a kid.  I mean, graduating from high school – mom’s in jail for killing dad.  The kind of thing most kids never have to deal with.”
            “I hope not,” Chad said.  “I don’t know what I’d do if something like that happened to one of my students.”
            Aaron shrugged.  “I guess it happens sometimes.  Teachers got to deal with all sorts of stuff they wish they’d never had to see.  In fact, in the story, it’s the main character’s teachers, and some of his dad’s relatives, that save him.  So, anyway, he grows up, mostly normal, but has all of this psychotic stuff in his past.  Then, time travel is invented.  Scientists find a way to send people backwards, forwards, whatever you want.  And the guy gets an idea; what if he goes back in time, and stops his mom from meeting his father?”
            “Seriously?  Like Back to the Future, only in reverse?”
            Aaron smiled.  “Sort of like that.  He knows that if he does that, he’ll save his father from twenty years in a horrible relationship, that will end with his being shot to death by the woman he’d married.  But of course, you see the dilemma.”
            “If he succeeds, he’ll cease to exist.”
            Aaron nodded.  “And I have to be able to answer the question, confidently enough that what my character does makes sense.  You know?  If I’m not sure, I won’t be able to write it convincingly.  So, I guess the question is: do you save someone decades of unhappiness and an early death, at the cost of your own life?  Or do you save your own life even if it means someone you care about will be miserable?”
            “The father might have been just as miserable had he not met the mom,” Chad said.  “You never know.”
            “That’s true.  But even so.  What should he do?”  Aaron held up one hand, palm upwards.  “It’s just a story, after all; I can make it come out whatever way I want.”
            “Is the main character happy with his life?” Chad said.  “I mean, if he’s screwed up himself, maybe he’d be better off, you know… not existing.  Kind of a clean suicide.”
            “I didn’t want to make it that clear-cut,” Aaron said.  “That seemed too corny.  Like, he’s just wanting out, so he goes back in time to kill himself painlessly and save dad the trauma as an added benefit.  In the story, he’s kind of ordinary – some days good, some days bad.  He’s got some memories and shit to deal with, yeah – but he’s not, like, despondent or anything.”
            “Wow,” Chad said.  “That’s a really interesting question.  I can see why you’re stuck.”
            Aaron smiled, and took another drink.  “A puzzler, isn’t it?”
            “Well,” Chad said, “here’s an idea.  Maybe he should go back in time, you know… and present the idea to the dad.  Tell him what is going to happen.  Let the dad decide.”
            “That’s kind of a cop-out.”
            “Yeah, but, you know, see if the dad thinks all the misery would be worth it, to have a kid.”
            “How could the dad judge that?  You know, condemn himself to twenty years of misery, and knowing he’d be killed at the end of it by the woman he’d married?  Do you really think anyone would be willing to do that voluntarily?”
            “I don’t know,” Chad said.  “Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know our futures.”
            “Believe me,” Aaron responded, with some vigor, “since I started working on this story, I’ve thought about that many times.”
            Chad finished his pint.  “Well, I’ve got to get going,” he said.
            “Educational philosophy waits for no man,” Aaron said, smiling a little.
            “Nope.  And, with luck, once I’m actually teaching I’ll never have to read this crap again.”
            Aaron laughed.  “That’s why I stick to writing science fiction,” he said.  “People actually want to read it.”
            Chad stood up, and shook Aaron’s hand.  “Good luck with your story,” he said.  “I think it’s an interesting idea.  I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
            “I hope so,” Aaron said.
            Chad picked up his backpack from next to the barstool, and said goodbye to Valerie.  As he was approaching the door, it opened, admitting another gust of cool air.  A woman walked in – slim, with shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling blue eyes.  She glanced his way, and smiled a little.
            No boyfriend in tow, Chad thought suddenly.  Okay, do I really need to stop at one pint?  I have time for another, right?
            Chad opened his mouth to say something to her – his usual pickup line was, “Can I buy you a drink, or would you prefer to break my heart?”, which worked about 50% of the time, and in the other half of the cases just resulted in an eyeroll.  But something in him just seemed to stall.  The words would not form, and the smile died on his lips.
            The woman walked past him, and up to the bar.  Chad turned to watch her.  And up on a shelf, behind the bar, was something he had never noticed before – a large hourglass in an ornate wooden frame, filled with white sand.  Valerie turned away from the elderly gentleman, who was finally paying his tab and seemed to be trying to determine if he could successfully stand up.  The woman sat down on one of the barstools at the otherwise empty bar, crossed her legs at the ankles, and rested her elbows on the polished mahogany top, smiling at Valerie and saying something too quietly for Chad to hear.  Valerie smiled, and turned – and then picked up the hourglass and flipped it over.
            Chad watched the stream of sand spilling downwards for a moment, a distant expression on his face, like someone just waked from dreaming.  Then he walked out, alone, into the windy October night.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Menagerie

Maybe getting rid of negative emotions isn't really the best idea.


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Menagerie

            “Your body is completely relaxed.  You are tranquil, floating, totally comfortable.”  Fay Devillier’s soothing voice was the only sound in the room, other than the soft breathing of her client who sat, legs crossed, on a yoga mat, hands on his knees, eyes closed.
            “You can still hear my voice, and are able to respond to my questions.  You are not asleep, just very, very relaxed.  Do feel relaxed, Jesse?”
            Jesse Goldman’s lips opened, just a little, and he said, “Yes.”
            “Excellent.  Now, without losing your sense of peace and relaxation, I want you to become aware of your anxiety.  Picture it.  Keep it in front of your attention.  But your anxiety is not you; it is something you are curious about, something you are observing.  Think of your anxiety as an animal, some little animal in front of you.  It can’t harm you.  You are watching it.  Can you see it?”
            “Yes,” Jesse said again.
            “What do you want to say to it, Jesse?”
            “Get out of my body,” Jesse said, his voice barely audible.  “I don’t want you any more.”
            “That’s very good.  How did your anxiety-animal react when you said that?”
            “It didn’t like it.  It’s glaring at me.”
            “But you know it can’t hurt you, right?  It can only go back into your body if you let it.”
            “Yes.”
            “Good.  Now, go deep into your breathing.  Let your vision of the anxiety-animal fade away.  Give your attention to your breathing.”
            Jesse sat quietly for several minutes, breathing.
            “When you are ready, let your awareness rise like a bubble rising in water.  Expanding, floating to the top.  When it reaches the top, open your eyes.  You will awake feeling no anxiety, only peace.”
            In a few moments, Jesse opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and then smiled.  Fay, seated in the lotus position in front of him, smiled back.
            “How do you feel, Jesse?” she said.
            “Great,” he said, and stretched, his back cracking pleasantly.  “That was awesome.  I’m not feeling jittery any more.”
            “Now, remember, you may feel your anxiety trying to sneak back in.  When you do, just close your eyes and breathe.  What you did today, you did – not me.  You can go into yourself any time you want.  Any bad feeling you have, you can banish this way.”
            Jesse nodded.  “I’d like to try to get rid of a few others,” he said.  “I have other feelings I’d like to get rid of.”
            “We can work on those next time.”  She reached out and touched his shoulder.  “But just remember that you don’t have to try to tackle everything at once.”

            Jesse rode the bus back to his apartment feeling lighter than he had in months.  Maybe years.  Anxiety had been part of his life as long as he could remember.  The nervous clutch in the belly, the sweat breaking out on the skin, the heart racing – all were familiar sensations, sure to come any time he was faced with a challenge he thought he couldn’t achieve, which was often.  This probably explained why Jesse, the prep-school-educated only child of a lawyer father and a doctor mother, was working for ten dollars an hour as an aide in the public library.
            When he got back to his apartment, he met his roommate, Dale Warren, leaving for work.
            “Hey, Goldman,” he said.  “What did you think of the hypnotist chick?”
            “Pretty good,” Jesse said.
            “Told you.  Rachel said she was amazing.”
            “Tell Rachel thanks for recommending her.”
            “We’re going to see a movie tonight.  I’ll tell her.”  Dale grinned.  “Rachel’s friend Sarah is still available, dude.  You think the hypnotist could help you get over your being too big a wuss to ask her out?”
            Previously, such a question would have made Jesse’s heart give a nervous little gallop; but now, all he felt was calm.  He gave his roommate a confident smile.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Yeah, I think she might.”
            Jesse had two hours before his shift began at the library, so he went into his bedroom, figuring he’d take a quick nap – his feeling of relaxation was really extraordinary.  I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time, he thought, caught between astonishment and happiness at the well-being that seemed to be washing over him.  He felt like he could actually sleep soundly, something that had never been easy.  But when he opened his bedroom door, all thoughts of sleep vanished.
            Sitting in the middle of his bed was a squirrel.
            The squirrel was just sitting there, shivering. It didn’t look cold, it looked more like it had a disorder of the central nervous system.  Its entire body was vibrating, almost as if it were being subjected to periodic electric shocks.  Is this what rabies looks like? Jesse thought.  Then he looked over at his window, which was closed, and thought, How did it get in here?
            Then he realized two other things, in increasing order of bizarreness; first he didn’t feel at all alarmed by the fact that there was an apparently diseased squirrel in the middle of his bed; and second, the squirrel looked a lot like the way he had imagined his anxiety during hypnosis.
            Without taking his eyes off the animal, he reached over and picked up his tennis racket, which was leaning against the wall behind the door.  He walked slowly toward the bed, and then extended the racket, and poked the animal in the side with the end of it.
            “Shoo,” he said.
            The squirrel looked up at Jesse and said, in a high-pitched but perfectly clear voice, “Piss off.”
            Jesse dropped the racket.
            “You talk?” Jesse said.
            The squirrel just gave him a sour look, and its face twitched.
            “Are you the animal I visualized when I was at the hypnotist?”
            “Bright guy,” the squirrel said.   “Got it in one.”
            Jesse thought, Why aren’t you freaking out about this?  Any normal person would be freaking out!  “How can you be real?” Jesse said.
            “You did it,” the squirrel said.  “You figure it out.”
            “I’m having a hallucination.”
            “Suit yourself.”
            “So, you really are real, then?”
            “Look, I’m not going to spend my time discussing existential issues with you.”  The squirrel looked up at him.  “Say, you got some of those anti-anxiety meds you always pop like candy?  I could use a couple.”
            Jesse frowned.  “Is this… is this why I feel so much better?  Because you’re not inside me any more?”
            “Oh, sure,” the squirrel said, its voice cracking a little as its body shook.  “Lord it over me.  Think about how I feel.”
            “I’m sorry about that,” Jesse said, and then realized that he didn’t actually feel very sorry at all.  “But you were the one making me upset, making it so I couldn’t cope.”
            “Seriously?  That’s what you think?”  The squirrel snorted.  “Try again, buster.”
            Jesse sat down on the edge of the bed.  “Well, whatever.  I feel better, so I really don’t care if I’m hallucinating you or not.  Now, move over, because I’m taking a nap.  I feel like I could sleep for days.”  He set his alarm clock for two hours.  “But I still have to go to work, so I’d better just make it till eleven o’clock.”

            Jesse woke up, after one of the soundest, most refreshing sleeps he could remember, just before his alarm went off.  The squirrel had moved to the top of his bookcase, where it sat, shivering and glaring at him.  Jesse changed into his work clothes, and twice had to stop himself from breaking into whistling.  He did feel a twinge of guilt about the squirrel’s apparent discomfort, and didn’t want to rub it in its face too obviously.
            While on a break at the library, he called Fay Devillier, and asked if she had any openings later in the week – that he felt so much better, he wanted to see her more than once a week.  She sounded pleased, and surprised, but cautioned him against being too aggressive.
            “Don’t push things too fast, Jesse.  I’m happy you feel our work has been helpful, but slow and steady is best.”
            “No, I really want to try this again,” Jesse said.  “Can we?”
            “I have an opening Thursday at ten,” she said.  “Can you make that?”
            “Yes.  And I know just what I want to work on.”

            “Shyness is not necessarily a bad thing,” Fay said, at ten o’clock on Thursday morning.
            “It’s a problem to me,” Jesse said.  “I can’t face asking a girl out.  I’m totally awkward at parties.  I hate it.”
            “Well…” she said, a little hesitantly.  “If you find it to be that big an impediment to your life…”
            “I do.”

            When Jesse returned to his apartment, he was not really all that surprised to see that there was a little bird sitting on his dresser, which put its head under its wing when he looked at it.  The squirrel was splayed out on its back on Jesse’s pillow, a cool, wet washcloth on its forehead, its body still wracked by tremors.
            He barely gave them a glance.  He went to his telephone and picked it up, and dialed a number he’d written on a slip of paper next to his nightstand.
            “Hi, Sarah?  This is Jesse Goldman – I’m Dale Warren’s roommate.  I was wondering… would you like to go catch a movie or something tonight?”

            Fay Devillier looked at Jesse doubtfully, as he walked into her office at ten o’clock sharp the following Tuesday.
            “You look… good, Jesse,” she said, a little tentatively.
            “I feel great.  Hey, I’ve already had two dates with Sarah.  She’s great.  I haven’t had a panic attack in over a week.  I’m doing awesome.
            “That’s good.  I mean… yeah, that’s good,” Fay said.  Then she shook her head.  “Look, I have to tell you that I have some misgivings about this.  You seem like you’re… changing too fast.  Like you’re imposing your will over your problems – forcing yourself to make big changes quickly.  I’m worried that it won’t be permanent, that you could have a setback.”
            “I’m not,” Jesse said.  “And it’s not me imposing my will, or at least in the way you mean – that I’m somehow just submerging my feelings.  Your hypnotherapy hasn’t made me able to control my bad feelings – it’s taken them away.  I had therapy for years that was designed to help me control my feelings.  It never worked.  What you’ve helped me to do is to remove the feelings entirely.”
            “Feelings aren’t bad things, in and of themselves,” Fay said.  “I’m sorry if I gave you that impression.  Feelings are there for a reason.”
            “They’re making it too hard for me to do what I want to do.”
            Fay looked at him uncertainly.  “Are you sure…” she began, and then stopped.
            “I’m sure.  I want to do it again.”
            She bit her lip.  “Once more,” she said.  “Only once.  And then you need to sit back, and let yourself just be for a while.  The whole point of this isn’t to tear yourself apart, you know.”
            “Maybe not,” Jesse said.  “But I sure don’t mind tearing away the parts of me that cause me pain.”
            Fay frowned at him, and then took a deep breath.  “All right,” she said.  “One more time, then.  What will it be this time?”
            “Fear.”

            Jesse caught only a glimpse of the rabbit’s white tail as it zoomed under the dresser when he walked into his bedroom at a little before noon.
            The bird was standing in front of the mirror on his dresser, both wings over its eyes.
            The squirrel had somehow opened the bottle of Southern Comfort Jesse had sitting on top of his bookcase, and lay next to a mostly-empty glass in an alcoholic stupor.  It was still shivering.
            This is awesome, he thought.  No fear.  No anxiety.  No shyness.  What couldn’t I do?  Then he thought; There are other parts of me I could sure do without.  Wouldn’t it be nice not to be angry at my parents any more for all of the head trips they put on me when I was a kid?  Wouldn’t it be great not to feel sad any more about my grandma dying last year?  Wouldn’t it be easier if I didn’t feel jealous of Dale for being better-looking than I am?
            He lay back on his bed, and cupped his hands behind his head.
            Fay said she wasn’t going to help me any more, that what I was doing was dangerous.  But I don’t feel afraid to do it, so what’s the problem?  He peered over at the rabbit, which had poked its whiskered face out from under the dresser.  As soon as he turned its way, it dashed back into the dark space and disappeared.
            He closed his eyes.  Focused on his breathing, made each breath deep and deliberate.  He concentrated on the air moving in and out of his chest, felt his heart beating more slowly as relaxation seeped through his body.
            Anger.  Sadness.  Jealousy.  Pain.  Loss.  Grief.  Rage.  Laziness.  Destructiveness.  Greed.
            How much better it would be, how much more peaceful and quiet and calm, without any of them.
            Jesse Goldman sank back, descending, his awareness pulling one emotion, then another, then another, out into the sunlight for him to watch and then to banish, until finally the sunlight was all that was left, an empty beam of sunlight with nothing but a few particles of dust swirling in it to give it substance.

            Dale Warren got home from work at a little after seven.  He dropped his lunchbox on the counter, chucked his keys onto the coffee table, then went over to check voicemail.  He’d left a message with Rachel about going to a party that evening – a yes from her would make what had been an otherwise fairly boring day have at least the promise of a good end.
            The voice on the only message, however, wasn’t Rachel’s.  “This is Jessica McVeigh,” came a pinched, annoyed female voice.  Dale recognized the name of Jesse’s boss at the library.  “Jesse, where are you?” she said.  “Louise is sick today, and we’re short-handed.  Call me when you get this.”
            Dale frowned.  Missing work without calling in wasn’t like Jesse; it wasn’t like him at all.  He went to Jesse’s bedroom, and knocked on the door.
            “Yo, Goldman, you in there?”
            There was no response, so Dale opened the door.
            Jesse Goldman was lying on his bed, his hands still behind his head, a beatific smile on his face.
            “Goldman?” Dale said, and walked over to the bed, and shook his roommate’s arm.
            Jesse didn’t awaken, didn’t even stir.  His chest still rose and fell, slowly, rhythmically, the only thing that showed that he was still alive.
            And that was when Dale noticed that he and Jesse were not alone in the dimly-lit bedroom.  In every corner, on every surface, there was an animal of some kind.  A large snake was coiled around the base of Jesse’s floor lamp, its forked tongue flicking, watched him through lidless eyes.  A monkey sat beside the bookcase, systematically tearing up one of Jesse’s old college chemistry textbooks.  A basset hound, its long ears drooping, gazed at Dale for a moment, then gave a heartfelt sigh and curled up in a pile of dirty clothes on the floor next to the bed.  A packrat was scurrying back and forth, picking up objects in its mouth, and bringing them back to pile them up in the corner by the window.  It already had a small stack of coins, several paper clips, a flash drive, a keychain, and Jesse’s wristwatch.  There were others animals there, too – he could make out several different kinds of birds, a frog, a scorpion, a lizard of some sort, and (most alarmingly) what appeared to be a black panther, sitting inside the closet, looking out at Dale through the half-open door.  It gave a low, throaty, dangerous-sounding growl, and Dale caught a glimpse of white teeth.
            Dale backed toward the door, his heart jittering uncertainly against his ribs.
            “Jesse?” he said again, his voice coming out as a squeak.
            A squirrel raised its head from a spot on the bookcase, and regarded Dale through bleary eyes.  “Don’t bother,” the squirrel said.  “He can’t hear you.  He thought he’d be better off this way.  Moron.”
            Dale turned and ran out of the room, and was dialing 911 when he heard the squirrel’s shrill voice call after him, “Don’t blame me.  I tried to tell him.”