Fox Squirrel

by Harli James


Jennifer’s mother has just scraped the crumbs of egg salad sandwiches off each plate and wiped down the sink so that it shines again. After church the family gathers in the living room to read. Her dad starts a fire, as he does every Sunday when the temperature dips below fifty-five. Jennifer lays on the floor and reads the comic section of the paper. Logs pop in the fireplace and the resin smell of wet wood lifts hungrily out. 

The dog yelps on the back deck. The boys are coming, Jennifer thinks. She scans the woods through the back window for a sign. The sky is a wintery pall, gray-white over the staid lift of pines and bare dogwood branches. Only a red bird twitters on a branch, its plumage striking against the bright gray sky. 

A knock sounds on the door. Her father doesn’t move, nor her mother. In this tucked away neighborhood, only kids stop by without warning. Jennifer crawls up and goes to the foyer to look out the sidelight window. It’s her friend, Nicole.

Nicole goes to private school. Jennifer goes to public school. They are best friends because they both love Bon Jovi, they both just turned thirteen, and they live next door to each other.

“Let’s go to the tree fort,” Nicole says when Jennifer opens the door.

“I’ll grab my jacket.” In her room, Jennifer pulls her coat from her closet. Just above it on the top shelf is a row of china dolls her grandmother had given her years ago, which she’d never been allowed to play with. They were just for looking at. Now they stare down at her every time she opens the closet doors, asking with their eyes to be let out.

Once outside, Jennifer and Nicole traverse the back yard then tromp through the woods to where the fort looms tall into the pine trees. The sticky scent of amber needles perfumes the forest. Nicole ascends the ladder with Jennifer following. At the top, they plop down and kick their legs out in front of them.

“Did you see my mom this morning wearing her bathrobe to the mailbox?” Nicole asks, rolling her eyes.

Jennifer giggles. “Not this morning. But I’ve seen her before.”

“She’s decided that’s an appropriate way to go out in public I guess.”

Jennifer had seen Nicole’s mother many mornings in her blue-quilted robe and slippers, shuffling down the driveway. Last week when Jennifer saw her, she noted how serene her mother looked. Her lips formed a soft smile and a glistening swarm of bees surrounded her head—a shining confederation of pollinators accompanying her ritualistic walk. 

Jennifer kicks at the basket of pine cones in the corner. The girls had collected them earlier that week in preparation for a pine cone war. The boys down the street had threatened to take over their fort so Jennifer had come up with this scheme to protect themselves. She picks up one of the cones and inspects it for any remaining seeds, but they’d already fallen out. 

“Have you seen Mack today?” Nicole asks, pushing back her bangs.

“No,” says Jennifer. She notices Nicole has put on her favorite jeans. “You like him, don’t you?”

“No,” says Nicole.

Jennifer isn’t sure. Mack scares Jennifer because he seems unafraid of girls. And when he talks to Jennifer, she feels like a speck. It never seems as if Nicole feels like a speck when Mack talks to her, but Jennifer knows that Nicole is unafraid of boys as well. Girls who are unafraid of boys sometimes scare Jennifer as much as boys who are unafraid of girls. 

The box of pine cones brims high and several have spilled over the side. Jennifer’s father had told her that this year was a mast period for the long leaf pines. Most years, predators eat the majority of the trees’ seeds. But every seven years or so the pines over-produce cones to flood the surrounding area, giving the seeds more of a chance to root. 

When she rides down the highway, Jennifer stares down the rows of pines whipping by and imagines herself a fox squirrel, skipping from tree to tree, paws tight around a cone, digging for seeds. That bird’s eye view, she figures, would provide a clarity that you cannot get when you traffic in clay and dust.

“Shh,” says Nicole, extending her ear toward the outer wall of the fort. “Do you hear that?”

Both girls freeze, listening to the creak of the forest. Feet shuffle through leaves. The boys are coming.

Jennifer jumps up. The ladder thrums below. “Grab the pine cones,” she says. She whips two cones from the box and leaps to the top of the ladder. Mack and a friend are below. Nicole squeals as Jennifer lobs the cones downward. Nicole then grabs a handful and strikes Mack in the head as he attempts to climb up the ladder. He yelps at the barrage and retreats to the ground. 

The girls sling the ammunition as fast at they can. Mack and his friend, who Jennifer recognizes from somewhere, scramble for pine cones to hurl back. “Get out!” the girls cry as they pelt them again. The boys encircle the fort, piling their arms with the girls’ remnants. As the boys pause to gather their provisions, Jennifer and Nicole double over with laughter, heaving to catch their breath. 

“What’s that guy’s name? Mack’s friend?” asks Jennifer as they crouch on the floor of the fort, plotting their next attack.


“So does he, like, live in the neighborhood?”

Nicole peeks through the crack in the fort walls. “No, he goes to school with me.” 

“I’ve seen him before. I think he came to our youth group two weeks ago.” Jennifer studies Eric’s face in her mind—a brush of freckles across his cheeks, red-brown hair that swoops over his forehead, a distancing scowl. She remembers now—he’d come to her church one Sunday evening with a friend and had been quiet except when they played dodgeball. Then, he’d pounded the girls with the ball as if he had not gotten the memo that the girls preferred to be pegged in the legs and not the chest. The youth minister had to interrupt the game and tell everyone to take it easy.

“Everyone goes to your church,” Nicole says as she begins to gather pine cones in her arms for the next battle.

It was true. The church has big social affairs for the teens in town. Just last weekend, Jennifer had accompanied her youth minister to the store to buy supplies for their Saturday evening lock-in. While in his car, Jennifer had been looking through her youth minister’s collection of Christian music CDs. One, in particular, she liked. He had a voice like Richard Marx. But Jennifer also listened to secular R&B and one particular rap album that could be considered mildly pornographic. But not in her youth minister’s car. Sometimes when she was with her youth minister, she felt like a roll of dimes with a tightly clad wrapper. If she were to smash the roll on the edge of the counter—bam!—dimes would go everywhere. They’d bounce all over the place, causing havoc, like a robe of falling coins, or a bonnet of bees.

“Fire away!” Nicole cries, flinging a line of pine cones over the fort walls.

Jennifer lobs more cones as the boys scurry below. She feels safe with the vantage point she has over them. She feels her feet lift from the ground. She plans for next time to stack fort ladder upon fort ladder and crawl to the tree tops so she can make sense of their movements. Chart her tactics from above.

“We’re out,” Nicole says, tossing the empty cardboard box aside.

“Fe Fi Fo Fum,” Mack yells as he starts up the ladder.

“That’s what the giant says, dummy,” Nicole says. “You’re Jack in this scenario.”

“Yeah, we’re the giants!” says Jennifer. But then she instantly feels stupid.

“I smell the blood of an Englishmun,” Mack continues.

“That’s you,” says Nicole.

Suddenly Jennifer wonders what the end result of this pine cone war would be. Would the boys actually try to banish them from the fort? It was on Nicole’s family’s property. When the boys got to the top, then what? It would become clear that there was no recourse, and they’d just stand around, arms draped at their sides. They might say so, what’s happening?  

Jennifer’s cheeks flush. She wants to be reading comics in front of the fire place, or to curl up on the sofa and put her head in her mother’s lap and have her pull the strands of Jennifer’s hair back lightly from her face. 

Mack climbs over the top rung, his arms over his head like an ogre. “Bwaaaahaaa!” he bellows. 

Nicole backs up against the wall. Jennifer inches away.

“Bwaaaahaaa” Mack says, lumbering toward Nicole. 

Jennifer feels invisible. She looks at her feet.

“Get away!” Nicole cries, but she is all smiles.

“I come to get you!” Mack says.

“No!” shrieks Nicole.

Mack grabs Nicole by the middle and begins tickling her. She howls, and tries to push him away.

Eric has climbed to the top as well and now stands a few feet from Jennifer. Jennifer and Eric watch Mack tickle Nicole while Nicole screams and laughs. Jennifer catches Eric’s eye and nods. “What’s happening?” she says. He shrugs.

How long would Mack tickle Nicole? Now she is bent over, swatting at his legs and he is behind her, his arms wrapped around her, his fingers working the muscles of her stomach. She has tears in her eyes from laughing.

Eric’s face is slack as he and Jennifer watch the flirtation that they are not a part of.

“Enough, enough,” Nicole says, heaving. 

Mack straightens up. “That’s your punishment for starting a war with us. Now we have all your ammunition.” He was talking in a deep voice, effecting a forest-Lord lilt. “As our subjects, you now must gather the pine cones from the forest floor while we take our rest in your fort.”

“Fine,” Jennifer says. She wants out of the fort. “Come on Nicole.”

Eric steps aside as Jennifer presses past him. Once on the ground, Mack tosses the cardboard box over the edge of the fort, and Jennifer has to jump to avoid it.

The girls scavenge the woods, tossing pine cones into the box. The ground is the color of orange blossom honey. Jennifer looks up and watches the green branches sway atop their pole-like trunks. The coniferous trees have everything they need to reproduce—male catkins and female cones. The warm spring air initiates a profusion of pollen from the catkins, creating a yellow haze in the air for the cones’ seeds, and a scratch in Jennifer’s throat. 

“Hey, I remember you from church,” Eric says from overhead in the fort. 

Jennifer looks at him. “Yeah. Me too.”

“Do you like going there?”

Jennifer takes a three pointer shot to get a pine cone in the box and rings it. “Yeah, it’s fun.”

“But your youth minister is so serious,” he says.

“He’s nice though.”

“Does he say I’m going to hell?”

“What? No. Why would he say that?”

“Isn’t that what you all think?”

“Um, no.” Jennifer’s cheeks really burn now. Her heart storms inside her. She hates it when people make those kind of assumptions.

“What does he say then?” Eric asks.

She shuffles her feet, kicking a stick. “He doesn’t say anything.” 

But it wasn’t true. Her youth minister said a lot. He told her once that she had a pretty smile. She had been flattered and felt set apart. But every time she sees him now, he says to her, Smile, Jennifer. Let me see that smile. She always smiles back. But it has been a few months of this now, and she wonders why he isn’t getting embarrassed by the tired joke.  

Nicole hefts the full cardboard box up the ladder. Jennifer makes wider concentric circles around the fort, plucking a cone here or there. The storm in her chest turns to fog. Pine needles prickle nearby. Eric has climbed out of the fort and now stands several feet away. The presence of him feels like a weather pattern.

“I think ya’ll have collected enough to pay your tribute,” he says.

Jennifer shrugs. “Whatever.” 

He leans down, grabs one, and holds it up. “These hurt when you throw them, you know.” He taps his finger on one of the spiky edges.

“It hurt when you blasted me with that dodge ball two Sundays ago.”

“Call it even?”

“Fire away!” Mack yells from above. A torrent of pine cones bomb over them. 

Jennifer shrieks. 

“Run!” Jennifer yells. They take off as Mack and Nicole ping them left and right, the cones hitting their heads and backs, landing in their path and knocking at their feet. 

“Ouch!” Jennifer cries. “They do hurt.”

“I told you!” He grabs her hand and pulls her with him. The sudden touch shocks Jennifer. What does this boy want?

It had been that day that they were driving to get supplies for the Saturday night lock-in that her youth minister had warned her about boys. Do you have a boyfriend? he’d asked. She told him she didn’t. She changed out the CD. Be careful about boys, Jennifer, he’d said. Be very careful.

Eric keeps her hand in his as they race through the woods. The pine cones do not stop. Eric and Jennifer have run deep enough into the forest and Mack and Nicole are far from sight. The pine cones now rain down from the sky instead. Eric’s hand is so warm Jennifer thinks it may be heating up her entire arm, all the way to her chest. She worries he’ll drop it, but she’s also mortified they’re touching and wonders if he doesn’t realize it, and when he does, if he’ll feign disgust or ignorance. The pine cones tumble down more numerous than before, dropping from the sky in hordes. “There are so many!” Jennifer yells through the clacking of cone on tree branch, body, and ground.

“We need cover,” Eric calls.

She follows him, cones pelting her, the prickers tangling in her hair. She keeps her free hand over her brow to block her face. The sky sends a torrent of cones. A storm of them crowd the air, the forest floor becoming a carpet of crackling refuse.

“There,” Jennifer says, pointing, as they approach an old piece of corrugated metal sheathing. “Underneath.” 

Eric lifts it up, the pine cones pelting the metal. Jennifer dashes beneath it, relieved for the cessation of cones battering her back and head. Eric rams a stick between a tree and the metal to create a jamb that props up the sheet in a forty-five degree angle. 

Under the shelter, Jennifer draws her knees up to her chest and gazes into the woods. The long leaf pines tower into the sky. Once their seeds germinate, a clump of pine needles will form above ground. On the surface, it will appear as if nothing is happening for years. But underneath, the taproot will be growing all the while, twelve feet down before the plant begins to grow above ground. 

Jennifer and Eric huddle together beneath the metal sheet under the thrum of cones. It’s as if she can feel his heart beating from the adrenaline. She can smell the mild tang of his sweat. Her breath doesn’t slow even though they are at rest. Now, something smaller falls with the cones, silver and hard.

Her youth minister had warned her. He told her in no uncertain words, Jennifer, watch out for boys. They only want one thing. The idea that there was only one thing about her to want jarred her thinking and she got stuck. She had stood that night in front of the mirror in her bedroom and posed one way, left hip out, then posed another way, right hip out. Crossed her arms over her chest. Brushed her hair back with her hands. Pointed her chin down. Lifted her head up. Stared into her dark eyes until she could see through them to the back of her skull and watched a cartoon character of herself play make-believe games:  dress-up, teacher, office. 

Now, in the forest, the one thing beats on the metal, bangs in her heart. Is Eric like all boys? She can’t run away now. There are too many pine cones, which are mixed with a glittering deluge of dimes. Had Eric orchestrated this thing-storm to get her there? He reaches over and pushes her hair behind her ear. The soft fluttering of fingers tickles her neck. She nearly flinches, but steadies herself as he withdraws his hand and holds up, between two fingers, a coin. 

“Found this behind your ear.” He grins.

Eric seems at first pleased with his trick, but then his face slackens. Jennifer’s vision is darkening but she can see Eric’s eyebrows turn inward as he draws a breath. “Your eyes,” he says. 

Jennifer places a hand under each eye. She lets her fingertips crawl up her cheek bone. The world is silverized and a sheen disrupts the clarity. Copper tightly clad in cupronickel alloy pings down from overhead, heavier than the cones. 

The last thing she sees are the way the dimes are filling the cracks between the cones, the way the world is filling up. The forest is so full, she’d never be able to wade through it to get back home. She taps her eyes and feels coins in them. She reaches blindly for Eric and blinks like a doll on a closet shelf.

About the Author

Harli James is a writer living in western North Carolina. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Jabberwock Review, The Gateway Review, Parhelion, and Miracle Monocle. She can be found on Twitter @harlijames and on her website at