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Cindy sees it first, and reaches her hand up to mine. She tugs on my thumb as we walk down the gravel road towards our mailbox. “Daddy,” she says, pointing at the carcass, “why isn’t he moving?”
“I don’t know, Cin,” I say. He looks clean from here, no blood on him. “Looks like he died of old age.”
“Is he going to heaven?” she asks.
“Ask your mother,” I say. Then I think of how, when I was a few years older than Cindy, my neighbor Justin and I found a dead squirrel on our street. Its hindquarters were flattened and bloody, but its head was pristine. We bent our knees to see it, and Justin poked it in the shoulder with a twig.
“Cut it out,” I said to Justin. “You’ll get rabies.”
“This thing got run over,” Justin said. “It didn’t have rabies.” The twig snapped against the squirrel’s hardened body.
“Come on. Leave it alone,” I said.
“No way,” Justin said. He pressed the stub of the twig against the squirrel’s smoky eye. I shoved him hard on the shoulder, and he fell backwards out of his squat.
“Ronnie, what the heck?” he said, standing up and dusting off the seat of his pants.
I looked at him for a long summer second. The truth was, I wanted to poke the squirrel’s eye out, too, to set whatever juice was in there oozing down the bristly, grey fur on its cheek, into its mouth, frozen open in pain. But I remembered how my dad had looked in his coffin, like just anyone could walk by and steal the watch off his wrist. My grandma said to me, “He’s in heaven now.” But I thought, No he isn’t. He’s right here. I can see him.
Cindy slows down as we get closer, pulling my arm back.
“Daddy,” she says, “can we look at him?”
“Alright,” I say. “But don’t touch him.”
I sit cross-legged in the grass near the squirrel, putting Cindy in my lap and wrapping my arm around her waist. She leans forward against my arm, scraping her shoes on my bare calves and reaching a hand towards him.
“Don’t touch him,” I say. I stand up fast, turning Cindy to face me and tossing her over my shoulder. I spank her twice through her pink corduroy shorts.
After a few seconds, she starts to cry and pound her fists on my back. “Put me down!” she wails as I walk us towards the mailbox at the end of the road.
My hands dwarf her small waist as I pull her off my shoulder and set her feet on the ground. I squat down and hold her between my legs.
“If I let you walk with me, you’re not going to run back to that squirrel, are you?”
She shakes her head “No,” still crying. I stand up and we walk. The whole way to the mailbox, she’s silent, sucking her thumb and squeezing mine.
When we pass the squirrel on our way back to the house, Cindy asks me again whether he’s going to heaven.
“I don’t know, Cin,” I say.
“Why not?” she asks.
“Because your mother knows more about heaven than I do,” I snap.
After a moment, she asks, “Was he a good squirrel?”
“Probably,” I say.
“Then he’s going to heaven, Daddy.”
On our way up the maple steps to the front porch, Cindy asks, “When’s Mommy coming?”
“Sunday night,” I say. “Day after tomorrow.” Then, for three and a half weeks, Jean will talk Cindy into believing everything she believes—about heaven, about squirrels, about me.
As I pull open the screen door, Cindy runs ahead of me into the dark house. I almost ask her whether she thinks I’m going to heaven, but I don’t want to give credence to the lie. More than that, I don’t want to hear her answer.