Some part of them was warning Reggie that this was a terrible idea. Merely thinking about trespassing onto squirrel territory would get them into some serious trouble. But as they watched a squirrel with an unusual head to body ratio scamper away and leave its nest unguarded, an opportunity to grab a couple of snacks presented itself. Reggie could not resist the prospect of free food.
Just a few chipmunk-lengths away from the squirrel’s tree wass a row of bark strips marking the border between the end of chipmunk territory and the start of squirrel territory. The border reeked of urine belonging to generations of nasty squirrels trying to mark their land. Reggie would have insulted the unsanitary tendencies of the squirrels if Reggie hadn’t realized the hypocrisy in their thought. “How can I make fun of someone else for marking their territory when I do the exact same thing?” they said.
Reggie’s eyes took note of the bark strips placed almost in a line. *There’s no going back after I cross this border,* Reggie thought. *I know there’s going to be more than one squirrel who’s going to get pissed off, but I can go in and out discreetly if I’m fast enough.*
They stepped across the border: after a quick survey of the undergrowth all around them, they dashed to the base of the tree. The squirrel that dashed off a minute earlier called this tree “Mossy”. Reggie snickered. *Naming their home as if it can actually speak to them,* they thought. “Whenever I start believing that squirrels and chipmunks are more similar than I thought, the absurdity of squirrel brains proves me wrong,” they said. Reggie shook their head and scrambled up the tree in the blink of an eye. They stopped at a hole near the top of the tree trunk, too perfectly round to be Mother Nature’s work; the thick bases of three branches extended from the other end of the trunk where the hole was. “Alright, I have three escape routes before I have even begun this operation! This is looking to be easy peasy, berry squeezy,” they joyfully exclaimed. With their back claws firmly planted in the bark of this random squirrel’s tree, they poked their head into the hole for the first time.
In the shadows, two piles of a large variety of tasty snacks laid in each corner of the circular nest. Rays of sunlight partially extended into the nest to reveal the presence of acorns, seeds of all shapes and sizes, and lustrous red berries. “Holly Berries! Oh my tree, there’s enough to feast on and take for the road!” Reggie leaped headfirst into the holly berry piles in the shadows of the nest. A couple of berries collapsed under the impact, their bright juice soaking the three black-brown stripes that run down their back. But Reggie paid no attention, as they devoured holly berries by the pawful. Out of nowhere, the breath was knocked from their lungs. A force pushed Reggie into the wall of the nest, slamming them against the tough bark. In shock, Reggie’s vision became impaired. They were unable to concentrate as the realization of pain crashed into their back and head. As Reggie’s vision gradually stopped shaking, they began to make out the outline of a furry creature looming over them only one chipmunk-length away. That image materialized as a squirrel. “Well, maggots!” they cursed under their breath.
“First of all, I will force your lazy chipmunk arms to clean up this mess before you leave,” said the squirrel with a seemingly passive-aggressive tone. Reggie feared that the squirrel was going to scream for backup from its fellow squirrels, but was surprised when he continued to speak in an unexpectedly tranquil voice. “You’re already in trouble, so help a fellow mammal clean up. Also, why steal from me? Why didn’t you just ask? I probably would have rejected that plea initially, but you chipmunks are nothing if not annoying. And persistent,” said the squirrel.
The squirrel extended a paw to Reggie, helping them stand back up. “The name’s Newt,” said the squirrel. Now upright, Reggie’s mouth was agape, revealing their red-stained tongue and pieces of nuts stuck in their teeth. After staring at Newt for a couple of seconds with a face of utter disbelief at the squirrel’s friendliness, Reggie shook their head out of their daze. “My name’s Reggie… Well, what you see in front of your eyes right now is a chipmunk who is stealing food from a squirrel’s nest because both species eat the same kind of food. Thank you for not kicking me out of your nest yet, but WOW, HOW ARE YOU SO CALM ABOUT THIS??”
Newt, who noted the mess of food scattered about the spiral nest floor, turned around and made eye contact with Reggie, who flinched backwards a step.
Chuckling, Newt replied, “Yeah, I heard. Squirrels and chipmunks not getting along. I’ve fought, or “jousted”, with my fair share of chipmunks, but it’s mostly been in the holly berry patches way beyond the stream. Today, you’re lucky that it is springtime. There’s enough berries and excess for everyone who wants it.”
Newt remarked that he would appreciate it if Reggie would help him clean the mess up. Reggie was too deep in awe to register what Newt said yet mindlessly agreed to do so. They started to tidy up the nest, which was littered with scattered berries and nut pieces. Reggie picked up each mispositioned treat and set them into separate piles near the back of the nest. Newt followed suit. The sun had moved to the center of the sky above by the time the both of them were finished.
Organized piles of delicious nuts and berries lay in a crescent shape deep in the shadows of the nest. Reggie said, “Well, thank you so much for being so accommodating of my foolish decisions. I’m not going to lie that I’ve always had the most derisive preconceptions of squirrels, such as how your tails are sad substitutes for the regal back stripes that we chipmunks have.”
Upon hearing this insult, Newt’s ears perked up and his shoulders rose with indignation. He towered over Reggie as Reggie hastily asserted, “WAIT, that was before. Your tails are truly a masterpiece of wild evolution; I’m just biased towards my own beautiful stripes and… okay, I am really sorry.”
Newt’s ears flicked back and forth with annoyance as he reined in his agitated fur and muttered under his breath,”Why mother nature felt it necessary to spawn such irritating, pompous creatures is beyond my comprehension…”.
Newt now addressed Reggie directly, ”Just forget it. Look, I think it prudent for you to run over to chipmunk territory as fast as you can. I would not want this… unusual situation… to be reported to either of our species’ leadership in Crum.” Reggie nodded their head and prepared to sprint down the tree back to their land. Suddenly, they stopped dead in their tracks. “Newt? I feel we are being watched. Look, in the birch trees in the direction of the sun!”
In the birch trees, two armies of shadows grew steadily in number. From Newt’s nest, he and Reggie could see a large swarm of squirrels on the left staring at the pair from seemingly every height above and below them. On the right, the two saw a noticeably smaller, but just as dense delegation of chipmunks staring from every direction. The top branches of the trees held squirrels and chipmunks respectively, yet these two species had never looked more alike. All stood straight up with a silent strength. All had a shining spark of anger flickering within the iris of their eyes.
“Everyone is here. THEY’RE ALL HERE! Newt, we are absolutely screwed. Come on, I know the branches behind your nest lead further into the woods!” exclaimed Reggie as they tugged on Newt’s arm. “No, their numbers would catch us within a couple of squirrel-lengths of this nest. Then we’d be in even worse trouble,” replied Newt as he yanked his arm backward.
“What?!? Then pray tell, what in the berry are we going to fluffin do??” Reggie fervently questioned.
Newt stretched briefly and began to walk towards the exit. “We’re going to give up, with dignity.”
“Oh my berry, I will actually slap you, Newt!”
“Save the jokes for later. I don’t have a foolproof plan to make it out of this kerfuffle unscathed, but this is the most sensible option as of now.”
“How?” murmured Reggie, slumped and downcast on the dark spiral floor. “I saw my mother and father clearly in that crowd. Their faces… how is everything going to end up okay?”
Newt abruptly lunged for Reggie’s front paws and dragged them upright. “Stand up, man! I never said anything about us being okay.” His right eye winked briefly as a smile began to form, but receded from his face just as fast. “But it is going to be one hell of a ride.”
Reggie grimaced at the third word Newt said. “I know we’re currently in the darkest pit possible in terms of our future, but I want to share something before we head into the deep. I use they/them pronouns. Refer to me through my name or a neutral pronoun, won’t you?”
Newt turned his head and regarded Reggie. Their eyes met, during which some shade of understanding passed between them in the span of one uncertain minute. Newt made a slight nod.”I will take that into account if we are able to meet again. Now come on.”
Newt and Reggie walked out of the nest and picked their way down Newt’s tree or “Mossy” as Newt whispered on the way down. They proceeded to the birch trees with their respective species, jaws clamped and with determination in every step. One will face the President of the Crum Squirrel Survival State (CSSS). The other will contend with the leaders of the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty (CFCS). With a hush of absolute silence, anxiety hung in the air like an impending nightfall. Not tranquility, but the noiseless promise of bad blood.