“Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. An audience with the President of the Crum Squirrel Survival State…” I muttered under my breath as I climbed a birch tree. Hopping squirrel-length by squirrel-length with my squirrel paws gripping the bark repetitively, I was almost there. Squirrels who live under the same Crum Squirrel Survival State that I once called my “community” were looking down upon me from the branches above. They responded to my every grunt with either barely disguised pity or incredulous hostility. Jeez, these dramatic, fluffy boots need to calm down.
“I know it’s been a while since I’ve been within a squirrel-length of any of you other squirrels,” I thought, “But stop reacting to me like I’m about to kick all your furry behinds. For the few pity glancers here though, I’ll settle for slapping you furry fluff-brains.”
While thinking these malicious thoughts, I continued lugging myself up the birch tree surrounded by the crowd of squirrels. Near the top of the tree, I looked up to see the president of the CSSS standing at the topmost branch, her shoulders puffed out, and her eyes were trying to mimic the sun’s deadly glare.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being disturbed by a freaking chipmunk, and now I get an excuse to see the old squirrel squad the President banished me from? Isn’t life just fantastic?” I thought to myself as I heaved my frame onto the wavering branch at the top of the tree. A solid furball of intimidation sits across from me on the semi-thick bast of the branch nearest to the trunk. Collecting my thoughts as I stood upright to make direct eye contact, I prepared to hear how the CSSS would betray me this time.
“Newt, do you know why we are here?” she asked.
I willed my eyes to remain in eye contact with her, even as they instinctively tried to pull away.
“Well, Jane, I am under the impression that you know why already,” I said.
“This smart aleck attitude is the same one that got you banished from CSSS in the first place, you know that? And I’ve told you since the moon we found you almost frozen in the snow to never address me by my first name,” she snapped. “Huh, it seems your exile has taught you nothing about respect, now has it?”
The hackles on the back of my neck instantly rose as I heard the word “respect” escape her lips. Heat bubbled in my chest.
“A squirrel-brain like you could never fathom what it’s like to respect someone that’s not yourself,” I said. “You’re a lying scoundrel who’s built her self-esteem off stepping on others. I might have been banished for revealing the truth during the last monthly full moon Squirrelfest, but it’s not going to mean anything once.”
“ENOUGH!” She cut me off. “We aren’t here to discuss the charges against you that led to your banishment.” Jane turned her head downward to address the crowd of squirrels in the tens of branches below her.
All the squirrels tried to bunch up as close as they could to the top branch, straining to hear our conversation. A thirteen squirrel-strong line blocked any stragglers from climbing up the trunk to where Jane and I were. They were the second-in-command group that answers to the President, known to me in my younger years as the “advising committee”. Besides their duty to advise and guide the President’s decisions, they would spend time getting to know me and even patiently took my inexperienced self out hunting for food — they were compassionate friends.
That is until Jane became President. In cold betrayal, she deposed her own mother, my stepmom. I was framed under the shadow of a silent moon ten moons ago. I barely escaped with my life. At the height of the insurgency, the advising committee was still loyal to my Mom. When she was lying on the ground helpless, life bleeding out of her, they were there next to her the whole time. They whispered utterances of reassurement and padded where she laid with trampled but soft moss. Now, look at them, reduced to merely personal bodyguards. I can’t say I’m surprised, though it is a horrific indication of what’s gone downhill in CSSS since that same night I was chased out.
“To the members of our community, I thank you for heeding my request to promptly assemble at this birch tree. It was an emergency that required everyone’s presence,” she started, before being interrupted by voices shouting questions like, “Are you safe, Madam President?” over the cacophony of gossip between squirrels across branches about what this abrupt meeting could be about.
“Settle down, everyone! I promise that each of your questions will be answered adequately if you would give me time to speak of the details of our emergency.” The crowd gradually began to quiet down, in part due to the intimidating glares of her thirteen squirrel advising committee members. With the silence to think clearly and the sun’s rays illuminating their faces from just overhead, I noticed for the first time how menacing their eyes looked. Not like squirrels seeking to reassure the crowd — more like fires trying to size up which branch to start burning first. I could not help allowing myself a shiver. Jane’s attention was still focused on the State below; if there was any indication that she noticed my brief display of fear, I could not see any movements in her facial expression.
“At the hour when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, I caught this squirrel engaging peacefully with a chipmunk,” Jane said. “Some of you may know him as Newt, the traitor that I exiled from our territory ten moons ago for murdering my late mother, and the previous President of our fair state, Madam Trinh,” she declared as she pointed at me with her right arm. The crowds shifted uncomfortably as a sea of eyes slowly moved from Jane and along her right arm straight to my warm face. I heard a few gasps in the audience and many loud growls from the crowd. My heart was beating furiously with fear for my life. But somehow, it was also pulsing out waves of rage that threatened to spill out of my mouth.
She saw my obvious discomfort, though I hoped not my fear, and a thin smile passed through her mouth from end to end before morphing back into a taut straight expression of anger. “It is indeed the traitor who stands before us, Newt.” She let my name sink in among the crowd for a few moments before she resumed speaking.
“Although he is no longer a part of our state, what he’s done may harm the delicate peace that we agreed upon with our counterparts in the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty,” said Jane. “His punishment does not fall under my jurisdiction, but the ramifications of his actions do. Thus, it is imperative that we seek to soothe the likely ruffled fur of the chipmunks.” Jane made dramatic motions with her paws while moving back and forth on her part of our common branch, switching between glancing at me and back to the audience. “Last I recall before being forced to leave, the CFCS were our brothers and sisters. I don’t understand how everyone’s getting fooled with this nonsense, but I suspect Jane had to do with this lie,” I thought in my head in response, a little shocked that people would actually believe her.
Jane’s voice merged with my background as a voice in my head blocked out everything outside. “Jane. LIE. ANOTHER LIE.”, I thought. With my paws clenched in anger, I was dying to step forward and shove her off the branch into the bare soil below, but I restrained myself just in time. Not again. I won’t go down that path again. The first and only time I did what Jane did during that night will be the last time I ever do that. Again.
Fuming and simultaneously trying to control my shaking arms and labored breathing, I turned away from Jane. I could barely make out her words as I regained control of my consciousness.
“Newt chipnapped a chipmunk named Reggie from territory belonging to the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty. The three leaders of the CFCS presume that Newt took Reggie against his will for sinister purposes. I have thankfully been able to at least convince them to talk with us before our current holly-berry tensions boil into conflict.”
My head suddenly stopped pounding, ”Wait, what?” I thought.
Steadying my strained body, my vision cleared up enough to see three small masses of chipmunks gathered at the base of the tree. With them is Reggie? They were flanked by two larger chipmunks, who were giving me a sideways glare of unmistakable hostility as they walked by. “What could young Reggie possibly contribute to these peace talks?”, I thought to myself while ignoring the older chipmunks’ glares. They looked terrified out of their mind as they followed the footsteps of three magnificently striped adult chipmunks. I wanted to call out to see if that young’in was physically unharmed, but Reggie was not going to hear me from all the way up there. I’d had enough of this stupid, sinister squirrel President and the State’s sea of guillable, tongue-tied stares.
While I stared at Reggie on the branch trying to catch their eye, Jane stood at the base of our occupied birch tree with one arm outstretched. I allowed myself a snicker of delight when none of the three chipmunks at the front of their respective clan offered to shake her hand.
Obviously trying her best to ignore that rude gesture, Jane greeted each one with a slight nod. “I’m glad you agreed to entertain my offer of diplomacy before making any rash decisions,” she said. “Clan Leaders Taylor, Tina, and Leiden. We have a lot to discuss.” I saw each of the clan leaders’ eyes briefly dilate with irritation before returning to their normal size when she said each of their names. A tension-filled silence passed between the four sovereigns of each of their respective states. Moments passed by, with all the members of both the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty and Crum Squirrel Survival State hesitant, unwilling to break the foreboding silence between their leaders.
Taylor was the first to speak. With an icy tone and a steady stare back at Jane, she said, ”Always a delight to negotiate with a truly patient darling such as yourself, Jane.” Motioning behind her, she kept a level stature with Jane as Reggie’s bodyguards escorted them to the front of the chipmunk mass. Reggie was left alone there, his ears pulled back and his body held low to the ground as the bodyguards moved back into Taylor’s crowd.
“Right, to business,” said Taylor. “What do you have to say for yourselves for trying to abduct a member of our Federation?”
Loud murmurs of discontent rippled through the crowd of squirrels strewn about on the birch tree branches above. I sensed a kind of political discourse in the air beginning to balloon up into an oppressive cloud above the gathering.
Then, I noticed a couple of Jane’s “advising committee” members had disappeared from the branches around mine where they were standing just a moment ago. Looking around in a circle, I spotted nearby tree branches shaking as if someone had used them to jump somewhere. The tip of a squirrel tail suggested that they were traveling downward towards the clearing where Jane and the Clan leaders were. The tall blades of grass, the assorted flower bushes throughout the chipmunk masses. The gentle breeze turned my blood to ice. That Jane. Diplomacy my a**. What was she up to?
I need to jump down and not die. I need to get down there, but some of Jane’s “lucky 13” are staring at me. …
That voice in my head returned, thundering,” Squirrel-brains! … What?”. “Squirrel-heads!!”
“Yes, that actually might work!,” I thought as I prepared to jump off of the branch. In that moment, some of the lucky thirteen pressed their paws into the branches next to and immediately below mine. They planned to keep me from interfering with Jane’s newest atrocity in the works, but I was faster. I jumped in the name of a hero I wished was there the night my stepmom died. Hopefully, that shadow who’s saved me in my nightmares was me … all along.
CRUNCH/OW! The advising committee’s six members all crashed into each other where I had just stood on the topmost branch. Turning my gaze downward as I started to plummet to the earth, I knew only one fact in that initial moment. Jane would not be able to hide who she really was this time … as soon as I made it safely down. The air rushed at me like a thunderstorm’s initial roar from the sky as my limbs flailed for some kind of a foothold. Stares and screams followed my wake down. I felt wood. The trunk!! I unsheathed my claws and dug my left arm into the speckled wood, accidentally creating shrapnel that was set to rain … on Jane?? I yelled, “NO, LOOK UP!!”