By Mary Morris
The day that Shane McKenzie stole the white squirrel from the Richland High gymnasium, you’d have thought that the world was ending. It was the screaming that did it, both animal and human: the squirrel’s outraged chitters and shrieks piercing, mingling with Shane’s post-puberty warrior yodel of exultation. In response, people erupted from every door in every hallway, flooding out, gazing around and at each other with bewildered faces like goats wandering through a slaughterhouse, scattering for the screaming tornado of mischief and mayhem running surefooted up and down the hallway through the crowd he created, leaping over there and away again, skinny arms held high, palms supporting the cage bottom as he brandished it high in the air, fingers curled into the bottom bars so tightly that even if the squirrel, in all its panic and rage, got hold of them with curved claws or rodent teeth, Shane probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Amused but unsurprised, I just slouched against a row of lockers, relieved to get out of Algebra II for a few minutes, and I laughed along with everyone else when a few stunned teachers half-heartedly pushed their way through the milling crowd of students, trying to get a hand on him but zigging when he zagged every time. In the midst of the chase, the perpetrator ran by where I was standing close enough that I could hear the jangle of his jouncing wallet chain under the noise of the crowd, inhale the faintly sour breeze created by the dancing jester and the maddened squirrel, and my mind seized that moment, whether I wanted it to or not, and burned it into my brain. And one morning more than twenty years later, when my Facebook newsfeed throws up Shane’s obituary and the accompanying recent photo of him in a Christmas sweater with a double chin and a pleasant, closed-lipped smile, that high school freeze-frame flashes into the forefront of my mind. It sloshes hot coffee over the rim of the cup onto my fingers and blurs my physical vision so completely that, for one endless moment, this is all I can see:
A scarecrow of a boy in a thin, homemade NOFX T-shirt, blond hair white and jagged in his eyes, dodging those who would stop him and running with the sheer joy of the chaos he’s created, the trouble he’ll be in later, the violation of the squirrel’s dignity as our school’s and our town’s mascot. This boy knows what he’s done and he loves it—oh my God, he loves it all, he absolutely fucking does, he loves it all so much that he’s about to piss himself with ecstasy, and that ridiculous love beams out from the bright blue eyes, whites showing all around, and the maniacal grin that is spread so far across his face that, at any moment now, the whole top of that crazy head might come unhinged and fall off.