Squirrely!

[In a departure from my usual dire ponderings, I am today pleased to introduce a brilliant new writer to the world. Mr. X, as he calls himself, has produced a delightful story about squirrels, politics, and young love.  It is printed here in its entirety.   No subscription required!]

 

SQUIRRELY!

 

Chapter One

 

A cold, drizzly rain had been falling all day, and now it was starting to pour. On a branch of a tree just outside the window of a house, a wet, bedraggled squirrel sat shivering.

Inside, in the warm, cozy living room sat a warm, cozy family. In the fireplace a warm, cozy fire burned. The father read his newspaper. The mother was knitting. The young daughter sat on the rug before the fire, petting a fat, fluffy cat on a fat, fluffy pillow. It was all very cozy and, well, warm.

The squirrel looked down at the warm, cozy family with great interest, focusing mostly on the cat. As he stared, the cat yawned, stretched, and began to look around lazily. Then the cat looked out the window and noticed the squirrel. It didn’t move, watching the squirrel for almost a minute. Then, it looked slowly around at the family the room, and the fire, looked back at the squirrel – and SMILED!

I know that some people think cats can’t – or won’t – smile. But this was a smile, if not a particularly pleasant one. It expressed a smug satisfaction with the cat’s situation, and a smirking contempt for the pitiful-looking animal on the tree branch outside looking in.

The squirrel was so startled he fell off the branch and landed in a mud puddle. He sat there for a moment, then got up, shook himself, and scampered off – if his slow, wet movements could be called scampering.

As he went, he said to himself (and not for the first time), “It must be nice to be a cat.”

Norman – for that was the squirrel’s name – was a typical teenage squirrel. By typical, I mean that he was like all teenagers, and like most squirrels. He was of average height (for a squirrel) and of average disposition (for a teenager). But in some ways he was different from other squirrels.

He was a rebel. But he was not a nut.

And thereby hangs a tale.

 

Chapter Two

 

Norman slogged along the muddy forest path, shivering and grumbling as he went.

 

“It’s not fair. Cats have all the luck. It’s so unfair.”

 

Before long, he met his best friend, Buddy. Buddy was a short, dumpy squirrel, and even in the best of weather he managed to look somewhat bedraggled. He wasn’t too bright, either. But he was a good friend.

 

“Hey, Norman.”

 

“Hey, Buddy.”

 

“Lousy day, huh?”

 

“Yeah. Like always.”

 

“Yeah,” Buddy agreed. Buddy almost always agreed with Norman.

 

“You find any nuts?” Norman asked.

 

“Nahh. You?”

 

“You kidding?” Norman said in a disgusted tone. Norman hated digging for nuts.

 

“Where you headed?” Buddy asked.

 

“Home for dinner.”

 

“Oh. What you doing later?”

 

“I don’t know. I was thinking I might stop by Gina’s house and, you know, see if she wants to hang out.”

 

“Gina, huh?”

 

“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.”

 

“You ought to. I think she likes you.”

 

Norman was surprised. “You do? I don’t know. Sometimes she’s like ‘Hi’ and I’m like ‘Hi’ and for a minute it’s really great. But then sometimes she acts like she doesn’t even know I exist.”

 

“Well, trust me on this one. She likes you.” Buddy sounded confident.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s women.”

 

Norman stopped and looked doubtfully at his dumpy, disheveled friend. He didn’t feel reassured. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just go dig for nuts, instead. You?”

 

“Me too, I guess.” Buddy agreed.

 

“Some life, huh?” Norman asked sadly.

 

“Huh? Yeah. I guess. Yeah.” Buddy was confused, and unsure of what he was agreeing about.

 

“Yeah,” said Norman.

 

“Yeah,” Buddy agreed again.

 

“Yeah!” Buddy responded irritably. “See you.”

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Norman’s family lived in a hole in an old tree trunk, with an old piece of hanging moss serving as a door. Inside the room was small and damp. There was no roaring fire.

 

His Dad was reading the squirrel daily newspaper. His Mom was preparing dinner.

“Hi,” Norman said to his Mom and Dad.

 

His Mom responded. “About time you were home, Norman. Wash your hands and come to the table. Supper’s ready.”

 

Norman went over to a walnut shell filled with water and washed his hands. He then took a towel and dried his hands, his head, his back and his tail. He instantly fluffed up. Norman was blessed with a good head of fur.

 

His Dad asked “Well, how did it go today? Did you find any buried treasure?”

 

He chuckled, knowing that Norman wasn’t very good at finding nuts. He also knew that Norman hated it. But finding nuts was an essential part of the squirrel life, and Norman needed to get good at it.

 

Norman sat down at the table, without answering. A single big acorn was on the platter. The father stood and began carving.

 

Finally, Norman responded. “No. I can never find where I buried a nut. And it’s miserable digging in the rain.”

 

“I know,” said his Dad. “But that’s when the digging is easiest. You should be glad it’s raining. I remember a few years ago, when it didn’t rain for weeks. The dirt was like a rock. Let me tell you, that was…”

 

Norman interrupted him. “Why do we have to dig for nuts anyway?”

 

“What do you mean? We dig for nuts because we bury them for safekeeping.”

 

“But then we forget where we buried them, and we never find half of them anyway.”

 

“All right, so it’s not a perfect system,” answered his Dad (who was both realistic and fair-minded.) “But it’s the Squirrel Way, and it’s kept us going for a long time. Why, as far back as our…”

 

Norman interrupted again. “Yeah, but why? Why can’t we get food from the humans, the way the cats do? They just lie around and wait for the humans to bring them food. And they don’t have to run around in the rain. And the humans clean them, and pet them, and…”

 

Now it was his Dad who did the interrupting. “That’s crazy talk! Cats are cats and squirrels are squirrels.” His voice was rising. “The humans PET cats because the cats are PETS!” By now he was almost shouting. “WE ARE NOT PETS!”

 

Norman did not back down. “But why not? Why can’t we be pets and let the humans serve us? Why can’t…”

 

Now his Mom spoke up. “Listen to your father, Norman. For once he’s right. It’s not the Squirrel Way, not what we’re made for. Now eat your acorn slice before it gets cold.”

 

Norman replied in a disgusted tone. “It’s already cold, Mom; it’s an acorn. We have no heat. Our food is always cold. This place is cold…”

 

His Dad broke in. “Stop complaining. Be thankful for what we have.”

 

“What we have? What we have???” Norman gestured dramatically to the bare little room. “We have nothing! Nothing!!! I wish I were a cat!!!””

 

His parents gasped in horror. Norman stomped out of the room. As he left, he tried to slam the door behind him. But because it was just a limp curtain of old, wet moss, it made only a faint “splurp” sound.

 

“I wish we had a real door,” Norman thought.

 

Back inside, Norman’s parents sat in stunned silence.

 

After a long, sad pause, his Dad said tiredly, “Sometimes I wish he were a little more, I don’t know….squirrely.”

 

His Mom sighed, and nodded in rueful agreement.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Norman walked through the rain and mud of the gloomy forest. He thought a number of angry, self-pitying thoughts, all of which were variations on one theme: “They just don’t understand.”

 

He soon came to another tree trunk, another shabby hole. Through the door he saw Gina, the squirrel next door. Gina was a beautiful teenage girl squirrel, and Norman loved her. He loved her with the kind of love that could only be felt by a young, serious-minded teenage squirrel whose parents didn’t understand him.

 

When he saw Gina, he was transfixed, smitten. His heart raced and his mouth felt like he had eaten a cotton ball.

 

She put on her raincoat and walked outside, obviously in a hurry. She suddenly saw Norman, and stopped.

 

“Oh. Hi, Norman.”

 

All his thoughts of sweeping her off her feet instantly disappeared. He barely managed to stammer out “Oh, uh, hi, Gina.”

 

“Have you been standing out here long?”

 

Gina looked up at the rain, and wondered why anyone would be out in it. She had obviously not expected to see anyone else.

 

“Oh, uh, no. No, just passing by.”

 

“Oh. Well, I gotta go…somewhere.”

 

“Can I walk you there?”

 

“Oh, uh, no. No thanks. Gotta go.”

 

And with that, Gina scampered off. She always looked graceful and nimble when scampering. Norman thought it was the prettiest scamper he’d ever seen.

 

Norman watched, then made a quick decision; he followed her, keeping out of sight. He followed her to a large hollow trunk, with guard-squirrels at the entrance.   Gina gave a secret signal, something that involved fist-bumping and quickly twisting her paws around those of the guard in an intricate pattern. She was admitted at once.

 

Norman looked around, spotted a crack in the trunk right above the not-too-smart-looking guards. He climbed cleverly from another tree, and got to the crack, and settled down to watch. What he saw astonished him.

 

Chapter Five

 

 

Inside the hollow trunk was a large room in which several dozen squirrels were milling about. Chairs were arranged for a meeting.

 

On the walls were posters proclaiming “Squirrel Power”, “No Cats!” (with a cat’s grinning face in a red circle with a line through it), “It’s Our Turn”, and similar slogans. One portrayed an evil cat with a Hitler mustache.

 

Norman gasped. “The Underground! The Squirrel Underground! Then it really does exist.”

 

In the hall, Gina edged through the crowd and up on the podium to a squirrel who was obviously the leader. They greet affectionately. He kissed her on the hand, with a continental leer; she blushed.

 

Horrified, Norman could not believe his eyes. Gina!

 

The meeting began, and they all stood to repeat an oath and give the secret paw-signal. The leader began speaking, gesticulating wildly, puffing himself up Mussolini-style. Soon, all are chanting: “Cats! Cats! Cats!”

 

Norman was watching so intently, he lost his grip and fell backwards off the tree, landing on the guards. Norman jumped up and scampered off as fast as he could scamper. The guards looked around in confusion, then stared up the trunk to try to see what had fallen on them.

 

Fortunately, the guards were not too smart.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

A disconsolate Norman walked along through the rain, not even trying to avoid the puddles. He was consumed with his thoughts.

 

“The Squirrel Underground! Those guys are crazy…. They’re obsessed with cats… I mean, I don’t like cats any more than the next squirrel, but I’m not a nut about it.”

 

He walked on.

 

“And Gina! How can she be part of all that? She’s so sweet, and beautiful and…and sweet…”

 

He stepped into a puddle that came up to his waist, but took no notice and continued on.

 

“And that leader of theirs…What a big shot… Big long-furred bag of wind, that’s what he is.   And the way he looked at Gina…And kissed her hand! Her hand!”

 

An acorn fell from a tree and narrowly missed him. He walked on.

 

“Those guys are obsessed with cats. Sure, cats are a pain. And they have it way better than us. And they’re lazy and mean. But…”

 

He stopped.

 

“But those guys are nuts … All they can think about are cats.”

 

As he continued walking, his thoughts drifted back to memories from his youth. He remembered being chased by a cat when he was still a very small pup (which is what baby squirrels are called), and not nearly as quick as he was now. These chases usually ended with him running up a tree as high as he could, and out onto a thin branch that no cat would ever reach. His heart would be pounding with fear.

 

Then he remembered one hungry, frustrating day when he was digging in the dirt for nuts (and finding none), he had looked up and seen a cat eating from a big bowl of cat food that a human had just brought out.

 

Another memory came to him of a time when he had been playing happily in the forest, only to be startled by a loud raucous sound. Two cats were coming near, laughing at some clever, catty joke. Norman just had time to hide behind a rock, or they would have caught him. Norman had felt humiliated, having to stop playing and run to hide from these fat, loud, merry cats. Why should squirrels run from cats? Why shouldn’t cats run from squirrels?

 

He remembered how, earlier today, he had watched the cat all snug and warm in the house. And he remembered the mocking smile the cat had given him.

 

Then, out of the mist of memory, came the worst humiliation of all. Just a few days before, he was being chased by a cat. As so often before, he had run up a tree and stood, shaking with fear, on a high branch. The cat looked up at him, sneered as if he weren’t worth bothering with, turned contemptuously and sauntered away. Just then, Norman turned towards the next tree and saw the face of – Gina! She had watched the whole shameful scene. Her look was filled with pity for him.

 

Norman could not get that pitiful look out of his mind for long. Every time he did, he saw the other face – the smiling cat in the window. The two faces alternated in his mind’s eye, back and forth, back and forth, until he could stand it no longer.

 

At that moment, Norman came to the realization that he, too, was obsessed with cats.

 

He announced his new-found self-awareness to the empty forest around him.

 

Slowly: “I…hate…cats.

 

Emphatically: “I hate cats!

 

Screaming at the top of his lungs: “I HATE CATS!”

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

When Gina came home after the meeting, she found Norman waiting for her outside.

“Hi, Gina.”

 

“Oh, hi.” Gina was startled, and clearly flustered.

 

“Gina, I want to talk to you.”

 

“Yes? About what?”

 

“I want to talk about…the Underground!”

 

Now Gina was really flustered. She tried to hush him up, as she looked around worriedly to see if her parents might be near enough to have heard. She led him farther away from her front door.

 

“The Underground?” she whispered frantically. “What are you talking about? What Underground? I don’t know what you’re talking about? There is no Underground, that’s just an old squirrel’s tale. That’s crazy talk…”

 

“It’s OK, Gina. It’s OK. I know who they are and where they meet and everything. I followed you tonight.”

 

Now, Gina was no longer flustered; she was furious. “You did what?!”

 

“I followed you.”

 

“May I ask why?” Her anger was now mixed with curiosity.

 

“Well, I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

 

“Oh!” Now, her anger and confusion were complicated by her awareness that she was blushing. She hated to blush. “Well, that was nice of you. But I don’t need any…”

 

“And when I found out it was the Underground, I got to thinking. The cats really are a problem, and the Elders aren’t doing anything to protect us, and so I thought, maybe…”

 

“Yes?” Now, curiosity took over.

 

“Gina, I want to join the Underground.   And I know their security is really tight…” (For a moment, Norman had a mental flashback to the not-too-bright guards. He put the thought out of his mind.) “So…Can you help me?”

 

Gina hesitated for only a moment. Then, in a noble tone, she said “Yes. I’ll be proud to. We need more volunteers if our movement is to grow. And I’m sure you can help…somehow.”

 

“And just wait till you meet our Leader. Damian is wonderful.”

 

At this, Norman knew she was talking about the big blowhard that had dared to kiss Gina’s hand at the meeting. Norman struggled to control himself.

 

“Damian. Oh. Great. I look forward to meeting him.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

In a back room of the Underground meeting hall, Norman, Gina, Damian and Buddy sat around a table. Buddy had insisted on coming along when Norman accidentally mentioned it to him. Anything Norman joined, Buddy would join, whether he understood it or not.

 

Damian began, with a take-charge attitude that annoyed Norman no end. Damian somehow managed to look even taller and more commanding while sitting at the table than he did standing up.

 

“So, you boys want to join the SU, eh?”

 

“The S-U-A?” Buddy asked.

 

“No, the SU, the Squirrel Underground. All this.” Damian indicated the room with a sweeping gesture. Between the posters he noticed his reflection in the hanging mirror, and paused in self-admiration.)

 

Norman spoke up. “Oh. Yes. We want to join, definitely. I’ve had it up to here with cats.”

 

“Me, too!” said Buddy.

 

Damian snapped out of his self-absorbed trance. “Huh? Up to where? I wasn’t looking.”

 

“I was pointing at my ears,” Norman responded disgustedly.

 

“Me, too!” Buddy quickly pointed at Norman’s ears.

 

“Well, OK, then. But first, you need to know that once you’re in, there’s no going back. If you’re not committed all the way, we’ve got no use for you.”

 

“I know.” Norman looked at Gina as he said it. “I’m committed.”

 

She blushed. Damian glared. “Well, OK, then.”

 

“OK, then,” Norman repeated.

 

They both look at Gina.

 

“OK.” There was an awkward pause. Finally, Gina rolled her eyes and said “Then.”

 

“Me, too!” said Buddy. They all seemed to have forgotten Buddy.

 

Damian gave Buddy a short, sharp look, then rolled his eyes. He turned back to Norman.

 

“Welcome, comrades,” he said in an icy voice.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Gina, Norman, and Buddy were walking home. Gina was radiant. Norman was thoughtful. Buddy was…well, Buddy was happy. He knew that he and his pal were involved in some new adventure, though he wasn’t entirely sure what it was.

 

Gina was bubbling over with excitement. “This is wonderful! Tomorrow you boys will start your training course. And then we’ll all be in the movement together. Working for the common cause, under the great leadership of Comrade Damian.”

 

Norman was nodding enthusiastically until she mentioned Damian. All he could say then was “Yeah. Damian.” Fortunately, Gina didn’t seem to notice his tone.

 

Buddy spoke up. “I’m pretty sure I recognized him. Didn’t he used to live over on the other side of the lake? His name was Bruce, I thought.”

 

Gina turned an icy stare on him, which made Buddy most uncomfortable. “I don’t think so. Comrade Damian is a revolutionary, a squirrel of mystery. He has fought the cats all over town, always fighting, never resting. He’s a hero. And his name isn’t Bruce!”

 

They walked on in silence for a moment.  Then, with a twinkle in his eye, Norman whispered to Buddy. “Comrade Bruce?”

 

“Yeah, I could swear I…”

 

“Stop it, both of you! Stop it right now! Comrade Bru…Comrade Damian is our Great Leader! Show some respect!”

 

She walked on ahead, furious. Norman and Buddy followed, smiling at each other.

 

“OK, OK.” Norman was afraid he had gone too far.

Chapter Ten

 

Their training began early the next day. Norman and Buddy, now in camouflage guerrilla uniform complete with berets, prepared to undertake various dangerous missions. The training was under the guidance of mysterious squirrels known only by mysterious tree-based code-names. They were very obviously squirrels who knew their guerrilla tactics.

Damian was often not present, being needed elsewhere to bear the burdens of leadership (he generally bore them while seated in a comfortable chair at the conference room table).

 

On the first day, Norman and Buddy practiced wire-running. This being one of the squirrel’s natural skill advantages over the cat enemy, it held an important place in squirrel tactics. “Escape, evasion, distraction; it all hangs on the wire,” as Trainer Buckthorn wryly put it. Norman scampered easily, Buddy clumsily.

 

The second day, Damian explained revolutionary theory to Norman, Buddy, and a group of other bored squirrel recruits. He used flipcharts to show the Underground organization (which seemed to be totally unorganized, even on the charts.) He explained his theory of the enemy-cat mind, which he believed was devoted entirely to hatred of squirrels.

 

After a long day of this sort of thing, Norman and Buddy were eager to get back into the field the next day. This was very hands-on indeed (paws-on, technically), as the subject was “cat-taunting”. Trainer Gumbo-Limbo explained that the idea was to run around in a cat’s view, get his attention, get him to chase you, and then to make a quick escape by a pre-determined route. Norman was a natural and caught on at once; Buddy not so much.

 

By the afternoon, they were ready to try it on a real cat – though this one was so fat and lazy that it wasn’t easy to get his attention. But they did, and they both got away with plenty of room to spare. It was exciting!

 

While Norman and Buddy were out on Cat-Taunting 101, Damian was meeting with the “Central Committee”. They were playing poker.

 

Another day, Norman and Buddy were introduced to the Top-Secret “Project Opposable Thumb” lab. In a very secret bush, squirrels were working with crude wooden glove-like harnesses on their paws, trying to get their inner claw to touch their other claws like a thumb, in order to grasp things one-handed, the way humans could. When Trainer Bladdernut strapped the harness on, Buddy fumbled with it hopelessly. Norman was little better, though trying as earnestly as he could. Squirrels in lab-coats and clipboards observed, taking notes all the while. The research didn’t seem to be going well, and Norman and Buddy were happy when it was over. As they left, the researchers shook their heads and returned to the lab.

 

That day, Damian took a nap.

The next day was one of the most difficult: Tail-Freezing. Squirrels have an inborn problem when it comes to concealment. Like most forest animals, at the first sight of potential danger they freeze in their tracks. This is because predators locate their prey by sight, and movement is the easiest thing to see. A squirrel can freeze its every muscle solid for several minutes…except for the tail. After a few seconds of immobility, even the wisest, toughest, most self-disciplined squirrel cannot help twitching his tail. Nervous squirrels generally cannot make it to the count of ten.

 

So, the Tail-Freezing course was an intense, stressful day of rigorous practice in immobility. After the first failure, and after getting chewed out by their toughest, meanest trainer yet – Trainer Frangipani – Buddy got so jumpy he didn’t stop twitching for the rest of the day. Norman did better, getting up to 30 seconds and setting a new squirrel record; but it was nerve-racking, even for him.

 

When Trainer Frangipani finally dismissed them for the day, they dragged themselves home, Norman was ready to quit the SU and stay in bed for a month. But then Norman thought of Gina, and Buddy thought of…well, nothing. He would follow Norman to the end, wherever and whenever that was.

 

On their way home, they passed the Headquarters in time to hear Damian’s voice snarling at someone to “shut up and deal!”

 

After a week of such training, Norman and Buddy were ready for their Field Reconnaissance Project. They were to observe the Catflap and bring back a full report.

 

Norman and Buddy sneaked carefully up to the back door of the house, finding a bush conveniently nearby that they used as cover. Norman sat quietly behind the bush; Buddy sat even more quietly behind Norman. At a very safe distance, Trainer Loblolly observed their observance.

 

For several hours, they watched cats going in and out. Norman took careful notes, while Buddy dozed fitfully (it was a warm, sunny day, and Buddy always had trouble staying awake in such circumstances). Norman noted each cat that went in or out, writing down a full description. When Trainer Walnut finally approached and told them they could withdraw, they withdrew.

 

The next day, Norman made his report to Damian and the “Central Committee”.

They had interrupted their ongoing meeting/poker game to receive the report, and Damian looked peeved.

 

Norman stood tall and strong, reading off his detailed description of each cat observed. Buddy stood proudly at his side. Even the Central Committee members seemed interested.

 

Gina was the most attentive of all. It was obvious to anyone who cared to notice that she was falling in love with him. Damian cared to notice, and was obviously displeased.

 

At the end of the report, everyone turned to Damian expectantly. He knew what he had to do, though it annoyed him greatly.

 

“Outstanding job, Comrades. You have brought back valuable information, which will be of great help in planning our next operation.

 

“And, both in this reconnaissance and in the reports from your trainers, it is clear that you are ready to assume the rank of Guerrilla Squirrel First Class. Welcome to the Underground, Comrade Norman, Comrade Buddy.”

 

Norman and Buddy blushed. The Committee members cheered. Gina beamed. Damian gritted his teeth and tried to smile.   “Comrade Ziggy, teach them the secret pawshake.”

 

“OK, Boss.” Ziggy set to work on the complicated arrangement of fist bumps, palm slaps, and claw wagging that constituted the Undergrounders most secret secret. It took a while.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

 

In Norman’s home, the family was just finishing dinner. Norman was exhausted from the day’s training.

 

His Dad pushed back from the table and moved to his easy chair, picking up the newspaper.

 

“Look at this. Another story about those crazy ‘undergrounders’.”

 

“What now?” asked Norman’s Mom.

 

“Apparently they were caught going into the Big House through the catflap. Crazy!”

 

“What happened to them?”

 

“What do you think happened to them?” His Dad slowly drew his finger across his throat in a slitting gesture.

 

“Oh, dear.”

 

“What else could they expect? Squirrels going into the Big House? Nuts! They’re all nuts!”

 

Norman headed for the door.

 

“Off again so soon? Where are you going so late?”

 

“Out.”

 

“Out where, O Squirrel of Mystery?”

 

“Just hanging out with some friends.”

 

“That’s all we get? ‘Hanging out’? ‘Some friends’?”

 

“What friends?   And where?”

 

“That does it. I won’t stand for this interrogation. Why must you constantly persecute and oppress me?!”

 

Norman stormed out, attempting to slam the rag covering that serves as a door.

 

Outside, he muttered “I wish we had a door.”

 

“Persecute and oppress?” wondered his Dad.

 

“Mmmm.” His Mom shook her head wonderingly.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

It wasn’t long before Norman met Gina in the woods between their houses.

 

Gina was agitated. “Did you hear what happened to the Operation Catflap team?”

 

“Yeah, just now in the newspaper.”

 

“How awful. Those poor, brave comrades. Especially Comrade Squeaky.”

 

“Uh-Huh. He was a stand-up squirrel.”

 

“He was sweet.”

 

There was a sad pause.

 

“I told Damian they weren’t ready yet.” Norman spoke through gritted teeth.

 

“Now don’t start second-guessing the leadership.”

 

“And I told him a group would never make it. That’s a job for a lone squirrel.”

 

Gina spoke coldly. “And I suppose you could do it?”

 

“Maybe I could. Maybe I will.”

 

Gina’s tone suddenly changed “No. No, it’s too dangerous.” She took his paw tenderly in hers. “You mustn’t think of taking such a risk.”

 

“Oh! Well…” For a moment, Norman was in squirrel heaven.

 

“Only an experienced revolutionary warrior, like Damian, could even think about trying it alone.”

 

Norman’s mood crashed. “Damian? Damian??? Are we talking about the same Damian? All he does is talk and theorize and play poker and…talk.”

 

“How can you say that? He’s The Leader!”

 

“Some Leader. Has he ever led anyone anywhere outside the headquarters? Has he even been outside?”

 

“That’s not the point. Damian has to protect himself, for the sake of the Movement.”

 

“Humph. Some ‘Movement’, with a Leader afraid to move outside.”

 

“I won’t listen to attacks on the Leader.” Gina turned away and started to leave.

 

“OK, I’m sorry. Don’t go. It’s just so frustrating. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get through The Flap.”

 

“I know.   But we can’t lose faith.” She took his paw in hers again.

 

Norman felt elated, depressed, and frustrated all at once. “Come on, we’ll be late for the meeting.”

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

The meeting hall was crowded, every seat full. Everyone had heard about the Operation Catflap disaster.

 

Damian was at the podium. His expression was grave and statesmanlike.

 

“We will now observe three minutes of silence for our fallen heroes.” There was complete silence for about three seconds. Then someone burped loudly, and Damian began speaking.

 

“Comrades, take heart. Even though three of our bravest and best are no longer with us, we must fight on. The memory of Comrade Squeaky, Comrade Ratso, and…er…the other one, the fat kid (someone whispered “Beanbag”) – Comrade Beanbag. Their memory will sustain us for the next round of battle.”

 

“And I promise you this. We will – this year – send squirrels through the Flap and return them safely back to us. I promise you this!”

 

He was rolling now. The crowd cheered “Hooray for The Leader!” “Hooray for Damian!” “We’re with you, Damian!” “Da-mi-an! Da-mi-an!”

 

After listening to the cheering until it gradually stopped, Damian continued.

 

“And once we have a first-hand account of all the cats’ secrets…once we know what lies beyond the Flap…” Here, everyone in the hall was leaning forward, listening breathlessly – everyone except Norman, that is.

 

“Then…Total Victory will be ours!”

 

The cheering broke out again, and went on even longer this time.

 

“Bowls full of food…warm rooms…fluffy beds…flea collars…constant petting and brushing…All will be ours.” The cheering rose after each phrase, but never entirely stopped.

 

“No more digging! No more being chased! We…shall…be…as…CATS!!!

 

Now the cheering was rapturous. Gina looked on adoringly, worshipping Damian. Norman noticed Gina, but Gina only had eyes for Damian. This did not improve Norman’s mood.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

In the SU headquarters, Damian was playing poker with the ‘Central Committee’ – Comrades Ziggy, Scruffy, Cosmo, Twitcher, Goggle and Waldo.  They sat around the green-topped table, each carefully shielding his cards. Under the table, Goggle secretly used his foot to pass an ace to his friend Waldo.

 

There was a knock on the door. Cosmo got up to answer it.

 

“Who goes there?”

 

“It’s me, Norman.”

 

“What’s the password?”

 

I hate cats.”

 

Cosmo opened the door. “Enter, comrade.”

 

After entering, Norman commented “You know, that’s probably not that secure a password. Everybody knows we hate cats.”

 

Damian sneered. “You came to complain about the password?”

 

“No. I wanted to talk to you.”

 

Damian turned back towards the table, and said over his shoulder to Norman “I’ll be with you in a minute.” All eyes were on Twitcher, who had just made a substantial raise. After about 5 seconds, his tail started twitching like…well, like a very twitchy squirrel-tail. The others threw in their hands at once. Twitcher was a terrible bluffer.

 

“You really ought to see Trainer Frangipani about that problem,” Cosmo offered helpfully. Twitcher winced at the thought, and snapped “I’m fine!”

 

Damian turned towards Norman. “So, what do you want?”

 

“Well…” He looked over at the ‘Central Committee’ to make sure they were not listening. “I want to volunteer.”

 

Damian’s mind was still on the poker game. “Great, great. You want to volunteer. That’s great….For what?” He picked up his cards for the next hand.

 

“For Operation Catflap Two.”

 

Damian continued playing. “You do, eh? Well, I’ll keep your name in mind. I’m working right now on putting a new team together.”

 

Norman looked at the poker game. “You are?”

 

They played the hand silently. Finally Scruffy laid down his cards, showing a full house, queens over tens.

 

Damian threw down his hand, equally irritated at Norman’s interruptions and at Scruffy’s full house. “I am. It just so happens we were just discussing it when you came in. I plan to appoint as Team Leader…” He looked around the poker table, scanning the faces of five terrified squirrels. “Comrade Ziggy.”

 

“What?!?!” Comrade Ziggy squeaked, trembled, and then fainted.

 

“Or some other brave, experienced comrade.”

 

The others ducked under the table.

 

Norman spoke. “I don’t want to be part of a team. I want to go in there…alone.”

 

Damian sneered. “Alone? We’ve already talked about this. Going solo is nuts. It would be a suicide mission. I couldn’t…In good conscience, I couldn’t…”

 

Suddenly, Damian imagined a huge memorial meeting for ‘the late, great Comrade Norman’, with Gina weeping on his shoulder.

 

“Or maybe I could…”

 

Damian stood up, shook Norman’s hand, slapped him on the back, and turned to the ‘Central Committee’ members, who were peering from underneath the table.

 

“Comrades, meet the hero who has volunteered for Operation ‘Catflap Solo’”.

 

Goggle asked timidly, “Solo”? Does that mean…?”

 

“Yes! This brave comrade is going in…alone.”

 

The ‘Central Committee’ members looked at each other, wondering if this miraculous deliverance could be real. Concluding that it must be true, they gradually broke into relieved applause.

 

“Oh, and Comrade Ziggy, we really need to update our Password.” Smiling, Damian gave Norman a conspiratorial wink.

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Norman crouched behind the bushes outside the door, intently studying the catflap. He was in his full commando outfit; stocking cap, camouflage face paint.

 

As he was about tiptoe towards the door, he heard a sound. He darted back behind the bush, barely in time. A cat pushed itself through the flap, and then stopped. It looked around lazily without spotting Norman, and then strolled away. After a few minutes, his heart still thumping, Norman cautiously approached the catflap…and slipped in.

 

Norman prowled, making effective use of cover. He explored room by room. In the kitchen he saw the mother spooning moist cat food into a bowl.

 

“That’s tuna and liver for Fifi, and chicken and salmon for FrouFrou.”

 

Norman couldn’t believe his eyes. He stared at the cat food, which the cats nibbled lazily. Then, realizing his danger, he ducked around the corner and into another room.

 

There he spotted a cat scratching post. He had never seen anything like it, and had no idea what it was. He looked it over curiously, from every angle, but was unable to figure it out. Finally, he put out his paw to touch it – and immediately his claw was snagged. He wrestled with it, getting both hands and then both feet stuck. After a desperate struggle, it tottered and fell with a crash. He was barely able to spring free, and he ran to hide behind the sofa. Just then, one of the cats strolled into the room to investigate, followed soon by the mother.

 

The mother looked at the post and the cat. “Fifi, you bad girl, did you knock over your scratching post?” She stood it up again. “I swear, since you had your kittens you’re just full of energy.”

 

The mother left the room, but the cat remained. After a long, suspicious look around, Fifi heard the mewing of her kittens. She turned and left.

 

Norman followed her at a cautious distance. At one point in the hall, he looked into a side room and saw a painting. It showed seven dogs seated around a table, playing poker. The name plate on the frame said “A Friend In Need, by C.M. Coolidge”.

 

Norman stopped, stared, and wondered. “Now where have I seen that before?”

 

Then he recognized it. The painting was a perfect portrayal of Damian and the Central Committee sitting at their conference table playing poker!

 

Norman almost laughed out loud, until he was interrupted in his thoughts by the sound of kittens mewing. He followed the sound until he came to the living room. Stealthily, he peeked around the corner and saw Fifi sitting in her cat bed, nursing five baby kittens. Their eyes were barely open. Their fur was softer than anything he had ever seen. And their padded, floppy paws looked comically huge for their bodies. He was surprised at how cute they were.

 

As Norman watched, filled with curiosity and mixed emotions, the father entered the room.

 

“Hi, honey. I’m home.”   He stooped to pet the cat. “Hi, Fifi. How was your day?”

 

The mother answered for her. “She’s been up to plenty of mischief today. Hi, honey. How was your day?”

 

“Long. And you’ll never guess what I just saw outside. There were three squirrels standing there, side by side, just standing there. And I could have sworn they were…watching the cat flap. I swear, they looked so intent…like they were waiting for someone.”

 

The mother shivered. “Squirrels are so creepy. They’re like…I don’t know…rats or something. Ugh.”

 

Fifi smiled and nodded.

 

Norman snapped out of his trance, took one last look at the kittens, and ran at top speed back down the hall to the flap. He did not scamper.

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Norman came running out the catflap, and was met by Gina, Buddy and Damian. Gina and Buddy were ecstatic. Damian hid his disappointment.

 

Gina hugged Norman. “You made it! We were worried sick. Weren’t we Damian?”

 

“Oh, yeah, just sick. Welcome back, Comrade.”

 

Norman was out of breath.

 

Damian was all business. “Well? Was the mission successful? Did you get any information?”

 

Norman continued panting.

 

Gina spoke. “Not now, Damian. He needs rest.”

 

Buddy chimed in with his ready agreement. “Yeah, let him rest.”

 

Damian nodded, then looked around warily. “Yes, rest. And we need to get out of here.”

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

The meeting hall had never been more crowded, nor the crowd more enthusiastic. Norman and Gina sat in chairs on the left side of the raised stage. The Central Committee sat on the other side. Damian, at the podium, was as bombastic as ever.

 

“As I promised you, we have sent a man beyond the flap, and returned him safely.”   At this, the crowd cheered wildly.

 

”As I said I would, I hand-picked the comrade for the job, I personally trained him, and I developed the entire plan.”

 

The crowd’s cheers now had a consistent theme. “Hooray for Norman!” “Hooray for Norman!” “He’s Our Hero.”

 

Damian was somewhat taken aback. For some reason, he had believed the cheering was for him.

 

“Yes, true, it was a team effort. My brilliant plan could not have succeeded without the contributions of this young squirrel hero, or of one of the many other squirrels just like him.”

 

The crowd wasn’t buying it. The cheers were now coalescing into a rhythmic chant. “Nor-man! Nor-man! Nor-man!”

 

Finally, one comrade in a back row managed to make his voice heard over the chants.

 

“I nominate Comrade Norman as our Action Leader!”

 

The chanting suddenly ended, as a dozen other comrades shouted out “I second the nomination!”

 

Damian was really thrown by this. The last thing he had expected was a challenge to his leadership.

 

“But…But…” He tried to think of a way to stall. “I don’t know if such a motion is in order.” He quickly consulted a dusty copy of Roberts’ Rules of Order which sat on the podium. He had never consulted it before, so of course he had trouble finding anything useful. All the while, the chanting continued. “We want Norman! We want Norman!

 

Clearly flustered, Damian whispered to Ziggy. “Ziggy, say something!”

 

Although Ziggy had long held the title of Vice Chairman, he had rarely had occasion or opportunity to address any meeting, let alone such a boisterous one. He cleared his throat. “May I remind you that we already have a leader? Comrade Damian, our great and glorious…uh…”

 

A comrade somewhere in the middle replied “He’s OK, in theory. But we need an action leader, too. Someone who can get things done. Someone brave enough to go…Beyond the Flap!”

 

The crowd liked that, and the chant resumed. “Nor-man! Nor-man! Nor-man!”

 

Damian surveyed the crowd with disappointment and concern. “Do you all agree?”

 

With one voice, the crowd answered “Yes!!!”

 

Damian was now resigned to the bitter reality that he might have to share the limelight with Norman. For now, anyway.

 

“Then Norman is officially recognized as our… Here his emphasis was unmistakable. “…Number Two Leader – our Action Leader!”

 

Ignoring Damian’s tone, the crowd roared its satisfaction. Again, they chanted, but this time with a note of triumph in every voice. “Nor-man! Nor-man! Nor-man!”

 

Norman had sat through all of this, astonished and embarrassed, blushing. Finally, he stood and walked to the podium. A hush fell.

 

“Uh, gee, thanks everybody. I’ll, uh, try to do my, you know, best, and to see to it that we have lots of, you know, action.”

 

As he tried to step away, the crowd surged forward and hoisted Norman onto their shoulders. Cheering wildly, they paraded him around the hall. From his shaky perch, Norman looked back awkwardly at Gina, more embarrassed than ever. Gina beamed with love.

 

Damian just watched. He knew he had a problem.

 

The parade and the chant went on and on. “Nor-man! Nor-man! Nor-man!”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

When all the celebration and congratulation was finally over, Gina and Norman walked home from the meeting.

 

For a long time neither spoke. Finally, Norman said tentatively, “Well…that was quite a meeting, wasn’t it?”

 

“Terrific. The best meeting ever. I was so proud of you.”

 

Norman began blushing, and could only say, “Oh…”

 

“The Action Leader. My own Norman.”

 

“Oh, well, it’s not really such a…” He stopped suddenly. “Wait a second. Did you say ‘Your own Norman’? I mean ‘My own Norman?’ I mean…Did you…”

 

“Well, yeah. I guess. I mean, I am kind of…your girlfriend. Right?”

 

“Well…yeah…right. My girlfriend.   Wow.”

 

“Yeah. Wow. I mean, what girl wouldn’t want to be with such a great hero?”

 

“Oh, stop.” He blushed again. He knew he should say something modest. “I was just the right squirrel in the right place at the right time. Any squirrel could have done it.”

 

“Maybe. But no other squirrel did it.”

 

“True…”

 

“And I don’t think any other squirrel could have been brave enough to do it.”

 

“Not even…Damian?”

 

Norman didn’t know why he said it. Insecurity? Jealousy? Whatever it was, he felt stupid, and wished he could take the words back. Then, to his surprise and relief, Gina frowned, then smiled, and…took his paw in hers. “I don’t want to talk about Damian.” They walked on, Norman felt as if he had been lifted into squirrel heaven.

 

After a long while, Gina broke the silence. “What was it like?”

 

“What? You mean…inside?”

 

“Yes. Tell me more about…the inside.”

 

Norman thought for a long time before speaking.

 

“Well, it was different than what you expect. The food was unbelievable. It looked so good I wanted to try some – and I’m a vegetarian!”

 

She rolled her eyes playfully. “I know; we’re all vegetarians; we’re squirrels.”

 

“Oh, yeah.” The memory was so intense, Norman had forgotten. That cat food had looked awfully good.

 

“So? What else did you see?”

 

“Well, there was this big tower-like thing. I couldn’t tell what it was for. When I touched it, it grabbed my claws and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t think I would ever escape.”

 

“Oh!” Gina took his arm in hers. “But you did get away?”

 

“Yeah.”  They walked on.

 

“But I’ll tell you what was the biggest surprise for me. It was the kittens.”

 

“Kittens?”

 

“Baby cats. They look like miniature cats, but different somehow.   Not so mean and tough and evil-looking.   They were just…I don’t know…cute.”

 

Gina was now eying him doubtfully. “Cute?”

 

“I know, I know. They are our sworn enemy and all. But, Gina, if only you could have seen them. It’s hard to believe that they could ever grow up into cats. It makes me wonder if there might be a little bit of kitten cuteness left even in the nastiest, fattest cat.”

 

“You’re not going soft on them, are you? I mean, the Movement needs you. You’re our best hope.” She snuggled closer to him.

 

“You’re our Action Leader.”

 

“Yeah…”

Chapter Nineteen

 

The Central Committee sat around the poker table. Damian was deep in thought. Ziggy, Cosmo, Twitcher, Goggle and Waldo played cards. Scruffy knocked and then opened the door.

 

Ziggy sounded official as he barked out: “Halt! What’s the Password?”

 

Scruffy pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, and read aloud: “Squirrels Rule X-J-3-7-backslash-colon-colon-6”

 

“Enter, comrade.”

 

Scruffy entered, wadding up the paper and tossing it behind him out the door.

 

After Scruffy joined them at the table, Damian finally spoke. “Well, here’s a fine kettle of nuts.”

 

The others looked at him in surprise. They suspected that they’d somehow been insulted, but they weren’t sure.

 

Ziggy asked “You mean us, boss?”

 

“No, not you idiots.” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “Our Beloved Number Two.”

 

“Oh yeah. Norman.” Ziggy spoke the name dreamily.

 

Scruffy commented, “Boy, the comrades really love him.”

 

Ziggy agreed. “He’s so brave!”

 

“The way he got right into the house!”

 

“And got back out again!”

 

Waldo spoke, for the first time anyone could remember. “That guy means action, with a capital…Ak.”

 

Cosmo agreed. “You can say that again.”

 

Waldo began to do so. “That guy means action, with…”

 

Damian froze them all with a ferocious look.   There was a long awkward pause.

 

Eventually, Ziggy broke the silence. “And the way he described those kittens. They must be awful cute.”

 

Goggle chimed in. “Yeah. I’d sure like to see them.”

 

Through all this, Damian was doing a slow burn. Finally, he could stand it no longer.

 

“Kittens? You want to see the cute little kittens?”

 

They all nodded eagerly.

 

“Don’t you nincompoops understand what kittens grow into?”

 

They all looked at one another, confused. They had no idea.

 

Damian tried again. “Don’t you know where cats come from?”

 

Their confusion grew. “I never thought about it.” “I dunno.” “Got me.”

 

Cosmo bravely offered a guess. “The cat tree?”

 

The others smiled and nodded. ‘Cat tree’ seemed a logical answer.

 

It was more than Damian could bear. “The cat tree? The cat tree??” He was yelling now. “You morons, cats come from…” As he paused for effect, they all leaned forward intently. “…KITTENS!”

 

They were aghast. “No!”

 

As they sat in dazed disbelief, Scruffy slowly formed a thought. “But we don’t want no more cats, boss.”

 

Damian answered slowly, under control again. “No, we don’t, do we?”

 

They all answered “No!” None of them knew what a rhetorical question was.

 

Damian shook his head slowly, trying to understand how anyone could be so stupid. After another pause, his face lit up with inspiration.

 

“I have an idea. A brilliant brainstorm! A striking strategy! A way to solve all our troubles. As usual, I… your Great Leader… have saved the day.”

 

He paused dramatically.

 

“We will conduct…Operation Kitten Elimination!”

 

They looked confused.

Cosmo spoke tentatively. “Elimination? Does that mean…kitten poop?” The others giggled hysterically. Scruffy called out “kitty wee-wee?”

 

Once more, Damian had to restore order with his angry glare. He was doing that a lot today.

 

“No, my little geniuses. It means we need to get rid of those kittens…by any means necessary.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

After the next meeting, Norman and Gina were leaving the hall, hand in hand.

 

Damian addressed Norman politely. “Comrade Action Leader, a word with you if I might.”

 

Norman did not want to let Gina’s hand go, but business is business. “OK. Gina, will you wait for me?”

 

“Of course. I know you two ‘Leaders’ must have a lot of important plans to discuss. I’ll wait out front.   I’ll be safe with the guards.”

 

Norman said “OK” and turned towards Damian. Then he did a double take at the thought of ‘the guards’. But before he could turn back to Gina, Damian grabbed him by the arm.

 

“Comrade Action Leader, have you given any thought to our next operation?”

 

Norman answered uncertainly, “Well, I have a few ideas.” In fact he had none. All his thoughts these days were of Gina.

 

“Indeed,” said Damian. “Well, I have something more than an idea. I have a plan.”

 

They pulled up chairs and sat.

 

“A plan?”

 

“Yes.” Damian smiled evilly. He probably couldn’t smile any other way. “A plan.   I have been thinking about those targets you discovered on your little mission.”

 

“Targets?”

 

“Targets. Those fuzzy little time bombs, those cute little fur balls. I mean the kittens.”

 

Norman was too startled even to try to conceal his surprise. “The kittens?”

 

“The kittens.”

 

Norman regained his composure. “Go on.”

 

“Don’t you see? Those kittens are a menace. They endanger our very existence.”

 

Norman wasn’t following him. “How do you figure?”

 

“Look. Right now there are two cats standing between us and a paradise of permanent pethood, right?” They were sitting closely, face to face, and Damian spat slightly when he got to the “paradise of permanent pethood.”

 

Norman leaned back a little and wiped his face. “Right,” he answered tentatively.

 

“But when they grow up, there will be five more.”

 

Damian stood up and moved to chalkboard, assuming his “Professor of Revolutionary Theory’ pose.

 

“See: Two cats now, plus five more cats later.   That’s…” Here he stopped and counted on his claws, getting more and more confused. “Well, that’s a lot of cats.”

 

“But what can we do about it?”

 

“I’m glad you asked that question. We can…eliminate them. Now, while they are still tiny and helpless. Before they become full-grown squirrel-chasing monsters. I tell you, boy, it’s Them or Us.” He leaned forward into Norman’s face. “Them…or Us!”

 

“But like you say, they are so tiny and helpless. Couldn’t we figure out some other way? Maybe we could find them new homes in some other neighborhood?” Norman was trying to find a way out of Damian’s bloodthirsty plan.

 

“Great plan, O Action Leader! Anybody would be happy to adopt a kitty from us. When humans see a bunch of squirrels knocking on their door, the first thing they’ll think of is – let’s adopt a pet!”

 

Norman had to agree. “I see your point. But still…”

 

Damian began to suspect the real reason for Norman’s hesitation. “Now don’t tell me you’re getting soft on our enemy? Is that it? You just love the cute little kittens?” Damian at his most sarcastic could be very sarcastic, indeed. And in fact, he was pretty much correct in his analysis of Norman.

 

“No! You know that’s not it. I’m just thinking it through, that’s all.” Norman did not want to be thought soft on the enemy. He was still stinging from the other day, when Gina had reacted similarly.

 

“Well, we need to do it soon. Those kittens grow fast, and before you know it, the cute little Puffballs will have turned into ferocious Frou Frous.” Damian paused, then changed to a reassuring tone.

 

“And anyway, it won’t be so hard. This time, I plan to go with you.”

 

“You?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“With me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“In there?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“To do that?”

 

Now, Damian was smiling. “And yes.”

 

Just then, Gina called from the back of the room. “You boys done yet?”

 

“Coming!”

 

But Damian wasn’t through yet. “Well? Are you in or out, Comrade Action Leader?”

 

Norman felt trapped. Only one answer seemed possible.

 

“OK, I’m in.”

 

Norman then walked to Gina and they headed to the door.

 

Damian, left alone at the front of the hall, was quietly exultant.

 

“Yes. This plan is perfect. We’ll get rid of those kittens, the Underground will achieve its greatest victory ever, and I, I alone will be the Hero of the Movement. Because something tells me that you, Comrade Action Leader, will not make it back from this mission…alive. Another heroic martyr to the cause! And any squirrel that gets in my way or gets out of line will end up the same way. Total power will be mine.   Gina will be mine. Mine! Mine!! All mine!!!”

 

Norman called to him from the doorway. “Did you say something?”

 

Damian snapped out of his dream and realized he had said all this out loud. “Hunh? No, nothing. Good night, comrades.”

 

Norman and Gina answered together. “‘Night.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

 

After dropping Gina off at her home, Norman wandered through the forest. He had a lot to think about.

 

“This is Nuts! They’re just cute little kittens. I don‘t want to kill them. I want to hug them!

 

“But Damian sure seems determined. The big bag of fur finally decides to get up off his tail and do something for once, and it turns out to be this!

 

“OK, Norman, don’t panic. You’re the Action Leader, you can think of a way out of this.

 

“Action Leader? What am I talking about? I don’t know what I’m doing. Or why! I only got into all this to impress Gina.

 

His worried expression turned into a smile.

 

“Gina! When she looks at me all proud and happy, I feel all, I don’t know, all squirrely inside. Like all I want to do is bring home a big fat acorn to our little home, with Gina and lots of little squirrels scampering all around.”

 

Suddenly, his vision of a happy home life vanished.

 

“Gina! What will she think of me if I become a killer? With kitten blood on my paws!” He looked at his paws, and imagined he saw them covered with blood. Desperately he rubbed them together, trying to rub off the blood.

 

“Arghhh! It won’t come off!   Out, Out! Darned spot!”

 

He snapped out of the trance. “And what will she think of me if I refuse to go on the mission? I can imagine what Damian would have to say about that!”

 

Here he mimicked Damian’s sarcastic tone.

 

“’Our ‘Action Leader’ seems to have lost his taste for action. He’s just a chicken squirrel.’” Norman formed a mental image of himself as squirrel/chicken hybrid, while Gina hugged Damian in the background.

 

“Or even worse.” Again he mimicked Damian, this time bombastic, outraged and vicious. “’Comrade Norman has betrayed us. While acting as one of us, he was actually spying for the cats!’”

 

This time Norman’s mind formed a mental image of himself in a trench coat and hat. When the image turned sideways, he could see that it had a cat’s tail, poking out from under the trench coat.

 

Damian’s voice again: “’Yes, comrades, this so-called Action Leader was a mole!’”

 

This time, his mental image was of a mole, with squinty little eyes and a long mole nose, snooping around blindly while Gina hugged Damian in the background.

 

“Ahhh!!! What am I going to do?”

 

He tried to calm himself down by taking deep breaths. Eventually,

 

“Anyway, I won’t kill the kittens. I know that’s wrong. Gina will just have to understand.”

 

“But how do I…”

 

And then…Inspiration! A light bulb came on over his head!

 

After a moment, Norman realized it was the porch light on the house, and he had almost walked into the catflap without knowing it. He darted back behind the bushes, but then turned, watched, and thought.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Later that night, a strange sight could have been seen by anyone who was awake and nearby. Norman was perched on a high bush, engaged in a low conversation with an unseen figure in the darkness. After a while, Norman extended his arm and grasped an enormous paw in a firm pawshake of agreement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 

Buddy and Norman were conversing in a private corner of the forest.

 

Norman whispered “Buddy, I need your help.”

 

“You got it, Buddy,” Buddy whispered back.

 

“Thanks, uh, Buddy.” Norman reflected, as he often had before, that sometimes Buddy’s name could make things confusing.

 

Buddy asked “What do you need from me?”

 

“I need for you to volunteer.” Buddy looked doubtful. He didn’t usually volunteer for things.

 

“For a secret mission.”

 

Buddy looked even more doubtful.

 

“A dangerous mission.”

 

Buddy looked very doubtful, indeed.

 

“With Damian.”

 

All doubt vanished. Buddy looked horrified.

 

“And me.”

 

Like the sun breaking through a cloud, Buddy’s face changed at once. He smiled trustingly.

 

“You got it, buddy.”

 

“Thanks, Buddy. You’re a bu…You’re a real pal. And whatever Damian says, whatever the plan says, don’t worry. Trust me.”

 

Buddy smiled. “You got it…pal.”

 

Norman realized that a friend like Buddy was worth a little confusion now and again.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

In the committee room, Damian, Norman, Buddy, Gina studied a crude wall map of the interior of the house.

 

Damian spoke. “OK, let’s go over the plan. Comrade Norman and I go through the flap. Comrade Buddy stands watch outside, with the bag.”

 

“I’ll wait with him.”

 

“No! I mean, no, that won’t be necessary. Two squirrels would be more likely to attract attention. It’s a one-squirrel job.”

 

Gina nodded. “Then just me. I can keep out of sight way better than Buddy can. No offense, Buddy.”

 

“None taken.” Buddy knew his own limitations.

 

Norman persisted. “No, I think Buddy is the better choice. The bag will get pretty heavy, and…”

 

Damian interrupted him. “I think Comrade Norman is right.”

 

“You do?” Gina asked in surprise.

 

“You do?” Norman asked in surprise.

 

“I do. Someday you’ll understand, Comrade Gina.” Damian puffed out his chest and jutted out his chin, in his favorite noble pose. “Sometimes a squirrel’s got to do what a squirrel’s got to do.”

 

Norman rolled his eyes and looked away to avoid facing Gina, who was furious.

 

She sputtered at Damian. “You…” Then, turning to Norman, “And you…”

 

After a tense, silent moment, she stomped out of the room.

 

Damian was unruffled. “Well. Now that that’s over, we can get back to work.”

 

Norman pretended to be unruffled, too. “Yeah. “I thought she’d never leave.”

 

Buddy looked worriedly at Norman. Norman gave him a reassuring wink, unseen by Damian. Buddy was instantly reassured.

 

Damian began again. “Where were we? Oh yes, in through the flap.” He pointed at the map, tracing the route they would follow. “Then, on to the targets. One by one, we stealthily remove them, carrying them back to the flap, where we hand them through to the outside squirrel.”

 

Buddy nodded gravely.

 

Norman made the mistake of thinking out loud. “We’ll have to be very quiet. If the big cats wake up, we’re done for.”

 

“What’s the matter, Comrade Action Leader? Scared? If this assignment is too much for you, we can always elect another Action Leader.”

 

“I’m just saying, is all. We better be really quiet.”

 

“Hmmph.”

 

Buddy spoke up. “OK, what then? When you hand the kittens through the flap, what do I do?”

 

“You put them into the sack.”

 

“The sack?” Buddy asked?

 

“The sack.” Damian answered.

 

“I put them…into…the sack?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You just do, that’s why! Then, with the last one, we come back through the flap. We then carry the sack out to the pond. And then…sploosh!”

 

Norman and Buddy repeated in unison: “Sploosh?”

 

“Sploosh,” Damian repeated.

 

“You mean…?”

 

“Yes. Come on, men, what part of ‘Sploosh’ don’t you understand?”

 

Norman nodded uncomfortably. “Sploosh.”

 

Buddy repeated. “Sploosh.”

 

Damian, now grinning with evil self-satisfaction, reiterated. “Sploosh.”

 

Norman and Buddy looked at each other. Norman winked weakly.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

 

As soon as the meeting ended, Norman tore out of the headquarters and ran after Gina, calling to her. She ignored him and walked faster.

 

“Hey, Gina, wait up.”

 

He caught her and took her arm. She glowered at him, saying nothing.

 

“Are you mad at me?” he asked, timidly.

 

She stares at him with a furious, disgusted “Duh!” look.

 

“Try to understand. I’m only trying to protect you.”

 

“Protect me? So that’s it! You still think of me as some helpless, vulnerable little squirrely-girl who needs a big, strong he-squirrel to protect her? Is that it?”

 

“No. I mean, yes. I mean…’Squirrely girl’?” Norman suppressed a smile. He thought ‘squirrely girl’ was pretty funny.

 

“That’s right. A weak little girly-squirrel who can’t do anything on her own. Well, let me remind you that I was a full member of the Underground back when you were just another furry slacker trying to look tough while running away from the cats! Oh yes, I saw you. Some ‘Action Hero’! And now, on the eve of the biggest revolutionary action in our movement’s history, you decide that I need to be protected!”

 

“But, I, uh…”

 

“Well, let me tell you something, Comrade Action Leader…”

 

“OK, OK, I get it. I’m a jerk for caring about you and worrying about you and wanting to protect you.”

 

“It’s not that. But I…”

 

“But you haven’t seen what it’s like in there. It’s all their turf. You don’t know what squirrel-eating monster may be waiting for you around every corner, waiting to pounce.”

 

They both paused, out of breath.

 

“So that’s it, then? Your final word? I’m out?”

 

“I’m afraid so, Gina. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.”

 

She paused and thought before answering. “OK. And I hope you’ll understand, too.”

 

“OK, great…Wait! Understand what?”

 

But Gina had turned and scampered away without responding. Norman looked confusedly after her.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Outside the catflap, Damian, Norman, and Buddy hid behind the bush, watching the flap. Buddy held a large sack. All were dressed in their camouflage face and body paint.

 

Damian whispered, “All right, men. Are you ready?”

 

“Ready,” Norman reported.

 

“Ready,” Buddy reported.

 

Damian waited, looked nervously at the flap, and started to tremble slightly.

 

After a few moments, he asked again. “Ready?”

 

“Yes!” Norman reported.

 

“Yes!” Buddy reported.

 

Damian still waited. An owl hooted, and Damian jumped.

 

“Ready?” he asked in a weak, shaky voice.

 

It was more than Norman could stand. “Oh, for…” And he pushed past him, heading for the flap. Damian hastily followed. They disappeared into the house.

 

A few moments later, Buddy reported. “Ready!”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

Inside, Norman crept stealthily down the hallway; Damian followed nervously. At a corner, they saw a shadow move ahead. They froze and watched. Then, Norman slowly inched to the corner and looked around it. He saw Gina, and at the same instant she saw him; both darted back, their hearts pounding.

 

Norman spoke first, in a whisper, peering around the corner. “Gina? What are you doing here?”

 

“What do you think I’m doing? I’m here to help you with your stupid mission.”

 

“But…we told you not to come.”

 

“And I told you I’m as tough as any macho squirrel boys!”

 

Damian interrupted. “We should go back. It’s much too dangerous with her along.” He sounded greatly relieved at the excuse Gina’s presence seemed to offer.

 

Norman looked at her, smiled ruefully, and shook his head. “No, I guess she can stay.” Then he turned to Damian. “And the mission will go on.”

 

Gina hugged Norman, while Damian turned away in disgust and terror.

 

The three of them inched down the hallway, with Norman in the lead. Damian lagged further and further behind the others.

 

As they passed a room on the left, Norman pointed at the painting on the wall. “Dogs Playing Poker.” Norman smiled. Gina mouthed “Ewww”. Damian looked blank. Norman whispered in Gina’s ear and pointed at Damian, who didn’t notice. Gina looked at Damian, at the painting, smiled knowingly, and nodded at Norman.

 

They reached the living room and spotted the cats and kittens sleeping. Norman crept to the first kitten and carefully picked it up in his arms. He handed it to Gina.

 

As Gina held the kitten, it opened its eyes sleepily, smiled trustingly at her, and then fell back into a deep sleep, snuggling into Gina’s fur. Gina fell in love in that instant.

 

After a second, Gina looked up at Norman with a realization of the horror of their plan. He winked reassuringly.

 

“Trust me,” he whispered.

 

In “bucket brigade” fashion, they passed the kittens to Damian, who passed them through the flap to Buddy. As Norman brought the last one, Gina looked miserable and Damian looked relieved. Damian pushed past them to get through the flap.

 

“Out of my way!” He was in such a hurry, he even forgot to whisper.

 

As he came through the flap, Damian looked up into the face of…The Dog. Damian fainted.

 

Norman came through next, then held the flap for Gina. As they both stepped over Damian’s inert figure, Gina saw The Dog. She hid behind Norman.

 

“Gina, I’d like you to meet…a friend of mine.”

 

As she came forward to shake hands with The Dog, Norman and Buddy began returning the kittens through the flap, one by one.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

The meeting hall was filled to overflowing. Norman stood at the podium. Gina and Buddy sat behind him. Damian sat, shivering and twitching nervously, at the far edge of the stage.

 

“Comrades!” Norman thundered out. “A new day is at hand!”

 

Suddenly, Norman stopped, embarrassed at the Damian-like pose and tone he had inadvertently taken. A podium can have that effect on even the most modest squirrel.

 

He started over.

 

“I mean, hey guys! We really have a chance here to make things better for all squirrels.”

 

The crowd cheered at this. They felt much more comfortable with Norman’s casual tone.

 

“As a result of our most recent trip beyond the flap, we now know a lot more about the cats.”

 

At this some in the crowd began hissing, some booing. One voice in the back called out “I don’t like cats.”)

 

“I know, I know. Of course, we still have our problems with the cats. But there may be ways for us to work them out – at least some of them. And that could make life better for all of us.”

 

This had the entire audience stumped. “Hunh?”   “What does he mean?”   “I don’t get it.”

 

Norman began again. “It turns out that they care about their babies just as much as we care about ours.”

 

This was mystifying to some. “Yeah? They have babies?” “Hunh! I did not know that.”

 

“So I propose that we meet with them and discuss our issues. There may be some things we can agree on. And if not, we’re no worse off than we are now. What have we got to lose?”

 

This was too radical for most in the room. There was a great deal of suspicious murmuring, even grumbling. “I don’t know… Cats? I mean, cats?”

 

“What if they try to eat us?”

 

“We will bring in a mediator – someone strong enough to protect us and keep everything calm. I know just the guy to do it.”

 

“I don’t know.” “Sounds risky.”

 

Then a solitary squirrel stood up, and addressed the room in an authoritative voice. It was Norman’s Father, dressed in camouflage face paint and guerrilla headband.

 

“C’mon, comrades. It’s a risk, but what have we got to lose? And with leaders like ours, we can do it! We can NEGOTIATE!”

 

“Right on!!!” screamed Norman’s Mother, with a blood-curdling yell that made Norman’s fur stand on end.  Though he had to admit that her beret and camouflage face paint made her look surprisingly stylish.

 

The crowd was silent for a moment. Then, the confused murmuring began again. “Negotiate?”   “Negotiate…Hunh?”

 

But Norman’s Father’s words (and his Mother’s scream) were reassuring to many.

 

“Ne-go-tiate! Ne-go-tiate!”

 

“Ne-go-shate!” “Ne-go-shate!!” “Ne-go-shate!!!”

 

One of the squirrel guards standing near the door turned to his fellow guard. “What’s that mean?”

 

“I dunno,” said the other. Then, loudly, he took up the chant. “Ne-go-shate! Ne-go-shate!” The other chimed right in.

 

Norman, Gina, Buddy smiled at one another.

 

Damian continued to twitch.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

The negotiations were not easy.

 

The cat and squirrel negotiating teams sat on opposite sides of a long table. The Dog-Mediator sat at the head, towering over them. The cats were led by Fifi and Frou-Frou.

 

The squirrel team consisted of Gina, Buddy, and Ziggy, with Norman as the spokesman. Ziggy was there to represent the Central Committee, although he wisely said nothing.

 

Damian was not there. He was on sick leave, trying to recuperate from the scare that had left him a nervous wreck. It was generally agreed by all that his twitching, shivering presence might convey a sense of weakness to the other side. Anyway, there was no way he could have been coaxed into the same room with the cats, let alone the Dog.

 

Two flipcharts stood at the front. The squirrels’ chart listed “No more chasing!” and “Share the food!” The cats’ flipchart listed “Stop acting creepy!”, “Hands off our kittens!” and “Share ‘opposable thumb’ research!”

 

It wasn’t easy. On and on, round and round it went. Each side gave a little and tried to get a lot. And when they were all so tired that they were ready to give up, the mediator would nudge them a little and they’d go back and try again.

 

At one point, the cats got up and started to walk haughtily away. The dog growled menacingly at them. They reconsidered their walkout, and skulked back to the table.

 

Finally, it all came together somehow.

 

The negotiations ended in an awkward handshake.

 

Chapter Thirty

 

In the end, the squirrels ratified the agreement by a wide margin, despite much doubt, suspicion, and hesitation. “Can we ever trust the cats?” was a common question. “We can try,” was Norman’s answer. In the end, most felt they could rely on their trusted leader.

 

The cat vote was much closer. But the older heads among them had grown weary of chasing squirrels, and they persuaded the younger ones to give co-existence a try. The more thoughtful among them felt that the opposable thumb research was worth any price – though what the cats would do with such a capability was any squirrel’s guess.

 

The next day opened to a state of tense expectation. As the cats came out of the catflap and gathered in the yard, the squirrels approached through the tree branches, watching cautiously. Norman, Gina, and Buddy were the first to come down the tree trunks and onto the grass.

 

As they did so, some of the cats pushed a food dish over towards them. The squirrels sniffed the food tentatively. Since this bowl was filled with a vegetarian food, they liked it.

 

Then, Fifi came out the flap, accompanied by her five kittens. As the kittens romped around the yard, more of the squirrels made their way down to meet them.

 

In no time at all, the yard was filled with kittens and young squirrels playing with one another. And both cat elders and squirrel elders were watching fondly, remembering their own long-ago youth.

 

Before long, a squirrel-cat poker game had developed, and Goggle was once again slipping an ace to Waldo. The cats were having too much difficulty holding their cards to notice.

 

Gina turned to Norman. “Oh, Norman! It’s like a dream! It’s all so…so…”

 

“Squirrely?”

 

“Yeah. Squirrely.”

 

Gina and Norman walked off, hand in hand, with Buddy following.

 

The Dog perused the scene with a sense of deep satisfaction. Staring off into the middle distance, he offered up his thoughts, to no one in particular. “I think we all learned something from this. We all seem to have plenty of reasons to fight with each other. But it doesn’t get us anywhere.”

 

“On the other hand, if we sit down together and try to talk our problems out, sometimes we can find a way to live together. Good night, folks.”

 

In a remote corner of the yard, two cats also perused the scene. Then they looked at one another, nodded meaningfully, and exchange a complicated secret handshake similar to the Squirrel Underground’s. They then turned back to continue observing the scene. They were obviously up to something, but no one seemed to notice.

 

 

 

THE END

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