By Hannah Christensen
The twenty-third sheet of paper showed the same evidence. The termite activity centered above the garage. Bert knew he should be relieved the pests weren’t gutting his house yet, but he eyed the garage ceiling with trepidation as he tapped the wood dust from the piece of paper. Of all the papers he had laid out through the garage and house, only the twenty-second had shown any sign of nibbles. The attack was from above.
“If you were as carnivorous as Stevenson says, you wouldn’t have this problem,” said Bert. “But the day of reckoning is at hand. I only wonder,” he mumbled, “whose reckoning?” He shook his head. “No time for cold feet. It’s time to start preparing.”
The store provided a dizzying array of pesticide sold for termites. Instead of wading through labels trying to decide which spray, powder, or bomb was the best, Bert loaded up a whole arsenal of termite killer. Next came the hard part: squirrel protection.
The only thing Bert could find was protection for birdfeeders, and he was not convinced it would help him against flying leaps of enraged balls of fur with the teeth and claws needed to vanquish trees and their offspring. If only they had stuck to climbing and nibbling holes in the trees. Bert might have scraped together enough to hire an exterminator for the termites, but going through a nest of fiesty squirrels to get at the insects was likely to cost hazard pay.
“Maybe if I lure them out first.” Bert eyed the squirrel feeder. “Maybe the hunting section has bullet proof vests and face masks.”
In the end, he faced the job wearing several layers of thick clothing topped with a bee keepers suit. While the head net was no match for squirrel teeth, it did provide a layer of disguise for the football helmet beneath.
All those layers on a balmy September day sent sweat tickling down down his skin faster than hammering in the squirrel feeder stake had. “You haven’t been bothered to even sniff the corn,” Bert chided. “This had better work.” He wiped his clammy, gloved hands down his pants. It didn’t help. He began to go over supplies one last time. “Ladder, poi—”
“Discounts for customers wearing costumes, only today!”
Bert turned toward the piping voice. It came from a girl standing a few steps off the sidewalk. She wore dark brown pigtails, glasses, and a red floral dress.
“Two for two-fifty.”
“Isn’t it a little early in the season to be selling Girl Scout cookies?” he asked.
“Oh, no, I’m selling tacos.” She bounced on one foot. “It’s to raise money to help poor dogs and cats find homes. I’m selling hot sauce, too. It’s the best hot sauce you’ve ever tasted.”
“Hmm.” He crossed the driveway to look at the garage from another angle.
Now the girl was following him.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Cuthbert. Cuthbert Titus.”
“No, I mean your costume. Are you disguised as an astronaut?”
“He’s just a crazy old professor from the Community College.”
Bert’s spine stiffened at the voice of his neighbor.
“As you can see, he should be in retirement.” Stevenson leaned on his bag of golf balls. “Give those students a true chance at energy. Not your fault, but eccentricity doesn’t replace vigor, and you’re no spring chicken.” He guffawed a couple of times to say he was being light hearted.
“If I had retired, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the termite poison,” Bert muttered as he dragged the ladder around the house. Maybe if he attacked from the back, he would chase the squirrels out the front and toward the corn.
“I’ve never met a professor before, Mr. Cuthbert.” The girl was still following him. “Are you really a scientist?”
He squinted at her. “A biology professor. Why don’t you try to sell some tacos to Mr. Stevenson?”
“Tommy says when anyone tries to sell him something, he calls the police to lock them in jail.” She smiled. “My name’s Bridget.”
“You should buy some tacos. They will take your mind off your worries.”
“I don’t have time for tacos right now. If I don’t keep my mind on my worries—” He thumped the ladder against the garage wall. “—the termites will eat my house down around my ears.”
Scurries and thumps flurried their way to and fro inside the roof. The squirrels were aware.
“Are those the termites?” asked Bridget.
“No. Those are the squirrels, and they are what are going to make this job difficult.” He plodded back around the house to pick up the rest of his equipment.
“They don’t like people coming near their nest. I had to move some of my tools when they first moved in because it was too near their entrance.”
“What did they do?”
“Jumped out every time I tried to get one.” He had waited until a few hours after dark, when the squirrels were all sleeping, to deal with the problem. First he had boarded up the hole inside the garage roof. Then he had boarded up the outside holes. He had removed his tools at the top of the peg board before going to bed. Partly he wanted to be on the safe side, and partly he was getting too old to easily reach that high.
“I can help,” said Bridget.
“Not with poison you aren’t.”
“You’re going to poison the squirrels?” Her eyes rounded.
“I’m poisoning the termites. If I can get past the squirrels.” He lay down his supplies and stood to rub his back.
“I can help with the squirrels. I’ll sell you some tacos, and when the squirrels come out to eat them, you can get the termites!”
Bert sighed. “If a taco got rid of the squirrels, I would pay for it.”
Bridget beamed. “I’ll be right back.” She turned and ran.
Bert shook his head. Time to get busy. He was getting too old to cart tools up and down ladders, too.
He had nearly pryed up his first board of siding when Bridget nearly startled him off the ladder.
“I’m back! They’re a dollar nintey-five each.” A satchel hung over her shoulder. “How many do you want?”
“So much for a discount,” Bert muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, “Are they distracting the squirrels yet?”
“I’ll do that right away.”
Bert heard the crinkle of plastic wrappings. “The entrance hole is in the front.”
Bridget dashed away again.
The squirrels were not distracted. Neither did they appreciate the breach in their home. Bert wished he could work quieter. When the board was quite loose, he propped it up against the top of the ladder. He would bring termite killer up before exposing himself completely to irrate squirrels.
But seeing he was soon to be surrounded by little dashing creatures while balanced on top of a ladder with his hands full, some precautions were in order. He would get the rope.
Bridget came skipping back around the house as he held his knots up and squinted at them.
“They were too scared to come out while I was holding the tacos,” she said. “So I left them in the yard. As soon as the squirrels stop feeling afraid, they’ll follow their little noses right to the tacos.” She tried to look around the garage. “How long do you think it will be before they stop being shy?”
Bert muffled a snort. “Those squirrels don’t have a timid bone in their bodies. I would call them as shy as a crash of rhinosauruses.”
Bridgit smiled and plopped herself on the ground. “Are you making a lasso?”
“No.” He tugged on the rope.
She gasped. “Is it a noose?”
He stared at her. A termite would crawl right through a rope like this. What was she thinking?
“Don’t hurt the squirrels! Promise me you won’t hurt the squirrels.”
“I thought you were taking care of the squirrels.”
“Promise!” There were actual tears welling up in her eyes.
Bert sighed. “I’m just trying to check how safe this harness is. Yes,” he hurried to say as she started to sniffle. “I promise. Now why don’t you check to see if you’ve lured any squirrels down with your tacos yet.”
She scrubbed at her eyes and then dashed around the house again.
None of the knots came loose at his tugging, so Bert hefted the rope’s end up over the branch. It took several tries to have up and snugged over a crook in the tree branch near the garage roof. He was tying it to a tree when Bridget came back. She was carrying the taco.
“May I use your microwave? They haven’t eaten it yet, but if it was warm they could follow their little noses right to a delicious meal—what’s that?”
“This is my safety rope.” Bert tugged the rope and traced the knot with his finger. “I haven’t detected any weaknesses, so I’m hoping it will save my neck if I fall.”
He went back to the ladder to where his home tied harness was now dangling two feet in the air.
She followed. “Detect? I thought you were a scientist, not a detective.”
“You might say a scientist is a kind of detective. They’re always working on unravelling the mysteries of this world. But no, I teach biology at the college.” He leaned one hand against the garage for support while he tried to step into the harness. It twirled away from his reaching leg.
“If it weren’t above the ground it wouldn’t help if you fell,” he reminded himself. “This is a good thing. The worst that will happen now is a jerk at the end of the fall. It will hurt, but not break your neck. Just some bruising. Or it may cut some where the ropes are. Or pull your legs out of joint. Or cut up into your arteries.” He put his leg back down. “I need some more padding.”
“I can help, Mr. Cuthbert.”
Bert shook his head. “I don’t have enough pulleys for you to bear my weight.”
“I won’t fall off the ladder.”
“Wha—no. No, you are not going up there.”
Bridget hopped toward the ladder.
Bert stood in front, one hand holding onto it. “No. I already told you, no poison.”
“I have something better than that.” She reached into her satchel and pulled out a little red squirt bottle. “Hot sauce! One bite and the termites will leave forever.”
“Besides, you are not allowed on ladders.”
She tipped her head, thinking. “Then I’ll climb the tree.”
“No, you’re not doing that either. I don’t want to have to call your mother and—”
“I climb trees all the time at home. Mom won’t mind.” She headed toward the tree.
“No, wait!” If she fell and killed herself…
She kept going.
…he didn’t even have her mom’s number. “Come back here.”
She paused and looked over her shoulder, a hand on the trunk.
“You…you…should at least put the halter on before you go up.” What was he saying?
But she backed away from the tree, beaming.
Bert grudgingly helped her into the loops of rope. She darted off to the tree. The rope pulled her up short as good as a leash.
“Um…Mr. Cuthbert? It doesn’t reach.”
“I guess you can’t go up after all.”
“I know. I’ll use the ladder.”
“No.” He pulled her back and tipped her out. “I’ll use the ladder.”
“And I’ll hold the rope.”
“Not without gloves. You’d get ropeburns.” He thrust his legs into the harness, leaning his back against the shed for support. He had to go up before she found another way to interfere.
At the top, Bert slowly slid the board away. He could hear nervous skittering inside. He glanced at the ground, turned half way around. His tether had a lot of slack now, but there was a broken branch close enough to fling some loops around. After shortening the rope, he glanced down again. Bridget was standing almost at the foot of the ladder now. No time for more stalling.
But now there was a squirrel nose peeping out at him, and it looked agitated.
“Go eat your tacos,” he told it. “They’re probably on corn shells. I know you like corn.”
The nose wiggled more fiercely.
“Just the termites. They’ve invaded your house, too. You don’t want the floor…er, ceiling, falling out beneath your feet, do you?” He eased his canister of powder up and gently twisted at the lid.
The plastic that packaged the lid to the rest of the container crinkled.
The squirrel leaped.
“Aaa!” Squirrel teeth and claws shredded the bee mask netting right before his eyes. A squirrel muzzle pushed between the football helmet bars, snipping just shy of his nose. Bert smacked at it before it could wedge in any closer.
The squirrel swiped across his visor and fell away. Unfortunately the canister fell away, too. Not only that, the whole ladder was wobbling. Bert leaned forward, his heart beating faster.
Something crashed against his helmet—then another crash.
“Squirrels!” yelled Bert as he fell backwards off the ladder. He tried to grab something, anything, but his hands only found the rope. Not such a bad thing to hold onto, he realized as he hit the end of the rope and started to tip backwards. “I need more loops in this thing.”
Bert reached out with his feet and tried to grab the ladder. It started to wobble. “No, no, no, no, no.” He kicked out stronger.
The rope began to swing.
He leaned over to grab at the ladder with a hand.
The rope swung more.
The ladder clattered down the wall.
“The ladder! Get the ladder!”
“To the rescue!” Bridget seized the ladder.
Bert winced and tried to dodge as it wavered in the air a few moments. Clump! The ladder landed against the house in an upright position. Bert’s heart calmed down. Then he saw what Bridget was doing.
“Not up the ladder. I didn’t say climb the ladder.”
“I’ll have those termites taken care of in no time.”
Bert groaned. He felt sick. Or maybe that was due to being a human pendulum. He wondered if calling Stevenson to help was worth the humiliation.
A squirrel chittered.
“Hi, little fellow,” Bridget cooed. “We’re here to help.”
The squirrel shook its tail and chittered again. It was poised for war.
“It’s time to take your medicine,” Bert told himself. He took a few deep breaths to prepare for yelling. It always took him time to be ready to swallow his medicine.
Bridget leaned forward. “Your nest will be termite free in no—”
The squirrel leaped.
Bridget screeched and jerked away.
The ladder swayed.
“Stevenson!” Bert croaked. That was no good. He cleared his throat. “Stevenson!” Now his croak had a squeak in the middle.
Bridget was only holding onto the ladder by an elbow. Both hands were flailing around her head where the squirrel was tearing around.
The ladder groaned and began to tip sideways.
“Grab on!” called Bert.
The girl showed more sense than his brother had that day he had slid out the back of a homemade chariot and been dragged for a quarter mile rather than letting go. She leapt clear and grabbed him by his legs as he swung by.
Bert grunted. The rope bit into him worse than ever. “Careful, you don’t want my legs to break off,” he warned.
The squirrel had abandoned his perch and leapt back for the garage. It stood in the hole, boasting loudly.
“Oh, you’re right. I should get on the branch.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She was already climbing again, this time up him. She was a remarkable climber, really, finding toeholds in the wrinkles of his pants and handholds in his pockets. In no time she was on his lap and scrabbling for his shoulders.
“Down, I mean.” Bert’s arms trembled. “I can’t hold you much—”
Her foot plugged the words in his mouth.
Now she was boosting off and scrabbling onto the branch.
Bert spit, cleared his mouth and spit again. His arms sighed with relief.
“That wasn’t very nice of you.” The girl was talking to the squirrel now.
It chittered angrily back.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. Now let me through.”
Scold, scold, scold.
“I’m warning you, I’m coming through.” She started scootching along the branch.
Bert groaned. “Stevenson,” he said.
The squirrel flicked its tail. It was going to jump.
Bridgett snatched the lid off her hot sauce bottle and squeezed. A stream of red flew out of the bottle. The squirrel shrieked and turned in a couple of tight circles before falling.
Bert had never seen a squirrel fall before. He wondered if it was dead, but after a few moments, it stood back up and began zig-zagging around, bumping into tree and fence.
“I thought you said it was the termites that don’t like hot sauce.”
“They don’t.” Bridget held onto the branch with her legs while she leaned her head and arms through the hole in the garage. “They’ll be out of here in no time.”
“I’d say that squirrel didn’t either. It’s no surprise they didn’t eat your tacos.”
Bridget popped out again and started scooting backwards. “He just didn’t like it in his eyes.” She clambered down the tree and set up the ladder for him, this time leaning it at a greater angle so it was easier to reach. Bert didn’t think his limbs would make the trek back up to unwind the rope, but he finished the task and got his feet on the ground in safety.
“I only did part of it, but my bottle ran out.” Bridget squeezed the bottle, whistling peppery out through its nozzle. “And the hole’s too small to reach farther. If you make it bigger, I’ll squirt some more.
“No, you’ve done quite enough climbing for the day. I’ll finish the job. Though…” He eyed the bottle. “I’ll buy a couple of hot sauces from you if you have them.” He didn’t know what they did for termites, but they worked wonders for squirrels.
Bridget beamed. She pulled two more from her satchel and followed Bert while he unhitched himself and fetched the money.
“It’s been pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Ethelbert,” she said. “I’ll call you in a couple of days to see if the termites are all gone and you need some tacos to celebrate.”
“No, no.” Bert herded her toward the sidewalk. “I’ll call you.”