Short Story
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                                   Cluster
                                         By Shane R. Toogood

 Margaret lay in her bed, magazines strewn across the right side where a
husband should have lain.  They kept her comfortable, the magazines, filling
a certain hole in her heart.  As she thumbed through Reader’s Digest,
nighttime news yapping in the back, a thump came from the roof.  Her heart
skipped a beat, but she knocked the sound out of her head. It must have
been a squirrel, she told herself.

 The broadcast was coming to an end. “Breaking news…” but Margaret
turned it off.  She vowed to be asleep before Leno came on unless one of her
soap stars happened to be on.  Another thump shook the roof, this time
echoing outside. “Damn pests.”  Since she had moved from Germantown to a
suburb of Philly she learned to hate squirrels.  Living in the city she rarely had
to deal with them.  Rats, yes.  But squirrels.  There was something about
these rodents.  It could have been their bushy tails, or their black, zombie
eyes.  They were worse than rats because they could leap, climb, almost fly.

 Almost in her late-eighties, Margaret was just waiting for the day she’d die.  
Those sunken, periwinkle eyes were losing all their color.  Her lips were
chapped; wrinkles running like rivers on a lost, decaying map which made her
red lipstick bleed into her skin.  Every time the wind blew, or the weather
dropped below 70, her bones would ache and yell. It was time.
Shifting her pale, dead eyes to the whirring ceiling fan, she breathed heavy,
shallow breaths.  Her arms were dumbbells as she lifted them and placed
them on her chest.  As she smiled, her whole face quivered and shook.  Then
there was another bang.  Three.  Like children’s footsteps racing, pitter-
patting over the crumbling roof.

 “These fucking squirrels.”  It might have been her mouth to blame for never
being married.

 Her father was in the military and—

 Another bump.

 Margaret hopped out of her bed, nearly dislocating her hip.  The bedside
lamp flickered as a whoosh of wind blew over trees.  Her feet shimmied, taking
her over to the window.  Outside was blacker than chimney soot.  She could
see Carol and Steve Creed’s porch light on.  An owl scooped down, or at
least Margaret could hear its dinner squeak and then rustle in the tree.  The
night seemed so deadly.  Two houses down smoke bellowed from the fire
place.  A familiar smell of burning wood circled the room putting Margaret at
ease.  The scratching squirrels on the roof were even louder and ferocious
from the window.

 She put two shaking hands down on the window sill.  “Shoo,” she called.  Her
voice came back to her.  “Git outta’ here.”  The scratching continued.  Her
heart, her small, fragile heart began to pick up speed.  She could feel a little
moisture form above her brow.  It was almost midnight.  The light flickered
behind her again.  Her neck hurt as she turned it towards the porcelain lamp.  
On the roof, where the scratching continued, she heard a faint, clicking
sound.  Like teeth chattering, or a 45 on a record player that was done and
waiting to be turned off.

 Soon the scratches ceased.  She turned her head to look back outside,
hoping to see something in the void of darkness.  Her cat jumped on the chair
beside the window.  That’s when she screamed.  And that’s when the
scratching continued. “You scared me, Jackie.  You nearly gave mama a
heart attack.” The black tabby, its copper highlights shimmering like an ocean
under the moonlight, cooed and nestled against her knee.  Her stocking
began to roll down her leg.  “What is that, Jackie?  What’s that sound?  Those
damn squirrels making a ruckus?”  She was talking to her cat like the
daughter she never had.

 Taking a seat next to her Jackie, she pulled a tin can—a painting of Vermont
in March—from underneath the drooping mattress.  She used to keep cookies
in there when her niece and nephew would visit.  Now they were gone;
careers, families, and new locations.  As she cleaned the weed, she thought
about Caleb.  She liked him most.

 The light went off.  On.

 He was CEO of some company she couldn’t remember the name of.  Rolling
the blunt she smiled.

 She never would finish smoking it, but the first hit was always the best.  It
burned her weak lungs, but it made her head stop spinning.  Her eyes closed
as she held her breath for a second.  Those dying eyes dilated, giving them
color again.

 Scratching.  That damn scratching.  The can sat on top of the magazines, its
lid black and burnt from ash.  She let the J burn on there for a bit as she got
up to look out the window.  The light buzzed on and off faster this time like a
strobe light.  Something else, another sound, haunted the room.  It sounded
like a dog at first, but as she leaned her ear closer to the window, it sounded
more like a child with emphysema.  A deep heaving chest.  Margaret could
only imagine a turtle back bellows used to make a fire grow bigger; the valve
going in, out, in, out like a fishes mouth.

 A warm, foul odor like rotten eggs and fecal matter came in through the
window with the air as a ghost would come through the wall.  The panting, the
scratching, the smell, the dancing light…
Margaret was anxious.  Then the lights went out.  The light next door at the
Creed’s, her bedside lamp, the moon, her burning weed.  All out now.  She
stared out the window.  That stench and warm, sticky smell came through the
screen as she pressed her nose against it.  Then a low growl, like a hungry
volcano, resonated through her ears.  And when her eyes adjusted to the
darkness, she was in the face of a beast.

 Its long snout, crooked, piano wired whiskers jutting out like a beet field,
pressed against her pig nose.  “No.” Her exasperated voice, a balloon
deflating, was the last thing she’d say.  Unless you count the screaming.  That
beast, that, that thing pawed at the screen.  Claws like hairy raptors.  They
pierced the tiny wires, splicing them from top to bottom.  Each wire plucking
and disconnecting from each other.  As the monster wriggled through the
window, Margaret looked around, eyeing the bag of wire hangers beside her.  
She was on the floor, against her closet now.  No strength to make it out the
door or even to the phone on the end table beside her bed to call for help.  
She could scream, but she couldn’t muster any breath just yet.

 She was gasping like the gigantic rat-beast coming through the window.  The
fur was steel wool and shades of brown, gold, silver and red could be seen if
the lights were on.  It plopped to the floor, birthed from the window, its tail, a
thick, long, writhing worm stood taller than the beast itself.  Its buck teeth
clicked against its split, snake-like tongue.  At first the poor old woman
thought it was smelling her out, but then another battering shook the screen.  
One, two, three, four more beasts, spreading like cancer, plopped into the
room.  Their noses sniffed the air.  They formed a flock, then dispersing and
scurrying to each corner of the room.  Jackie bolted out in to the hall, her hair
raised, hissing.

 Now Margaret was left alone.  To die.  To be mauled limb from limb.  Like a
Thanksgiving turkey.  When the pain seared through her veins, crawling from
her toes to her skull, that’s when she breathed from her diaphragm and
began to scream one last time.  The sound was cut off quickly, as if her vocal
box had been ripped out.  Or maybe that’s because her vocal box had been
ripped out.