Keys jingle-jangle a tune I can’t follow from the green wrist coil you wear. You stop, look back over your shoulder, smile, but your eyes watch for anyone standing too close. You turn your attention back to leaving – release the double-bolted locks, push open the heavy door. It’s going home time for you. For us, it’s the skeleton crew. Our durable red wristbands list our name, medications and allergies. They could easily be removed with a snip, but scissors aren’t allowed here.
‘Squirrel house. Which nut you want?’ is how Norman answers the payphone in the dayroom. He lives to answer that phone. His big voice booms. People complain, but the grounds are full of the creatures, so he gets away with it. Hang-ups are frequent. But when he gets a name, he shouts it with a smirk, then drops the handset and moves away. If no one takes the call, we watch the receiver dangle, listen as a tinny otherworldly voice says, Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me? Monica?
We all know our nut names: Suicide, Sexually Abused, Eating Disorder. There’s one Post-Partum. Some girls – and it’s always girls -- are multiples, presenting their trauma like bejewelled necklaces for us to admire.
We know each other’s real names but nicknames are safer. Slick and Blue got busted by Dragon for candy swapping, but Muddy turns a blind eye.
There’re no locks on our doors, we’re free to enter each other’s worlds. Tammy has broken green eyes, taped-together glasses, and a knack for nicking. Amanda has the baby, bandages on her wrist, and a husband who sobs when he visits. Monica’s a run-away, but her family keep finding her. Charlene, if this is her real name, tells fascinating tales of beatings, starvings and webcam sex-scams. Stella doesn’t talk, but plenty is said about her.
In dreams, I use the staff phone to dial the payphone. When Norman answers, I say Cashew. Smile as his voice travels around the room. Speak gently into the receiver’s ear. Then ring the number again. Pecan. And again. Macadamia. Until we all have shiny new names and our smiles return.
‘Why do you think you’re here?’ you ask.
‘You’re the one with all the keys,’ I say.
I ask, ‘Why are there no squirrels in the squirrel house?’ You look at me, blink, write something. I stare out the window, watch the vermin chase each other, bury nuts.
Towards the end of our almost-silent session I feel sorry for you.
‘What people don’t understand is that most nuts aren’t really nuts. Pecans, cashews, walnuts, Brazil, pine – they’re seeds. Peanuts are legumes. Macadamias are fruit. There’re very few true nuts – chestnuts and hazelnuts – but people call them all nuts. It’s easier.’
‘Interesting,’ you say. ‘Go on.’
But I’m weary now. Fall silent. Your frenetic scribbling makes the keys dart and dance, clatter together. Chatter like squirrels. I feel a headache coming on. I go back to watching them run wild amongst the trees.
'The Squirrel House is Not Full of Nuts' was first published online with Grindstone Literary in October 2019.