A Gruesome Death

October 28, 2016


Image by Moyan Brenn.

Here’s what happened. Don’t read if you’re squeamish.

Our garage is not very big. It fits our car with barely enough room to walk; depending on how well we park, there can be some awkward squeezes to get in and out.

At the back of the garage, a scant 1 or 2 inches from the front bumper of our parked car, was a collection of stuff destined for the dump. We have a dilapidated bookcase with its shelves removed. Sitting in the bookcase, we piled our old car seats; our kids have outgrown them and no charity accepts used car seats. A few weeks ago we got a new kitchen mat, and we rolled up the old one, tied it, and put it in the bookcase resting vertically on top of the car seats. (It’s amazing how long we can keep junk piled up in our house.)

I think I got my first literal whiff that something was wrong on Sunday. A little over a year ago we had a dead rat in the attic, so I’ve learned the “dead animal” smell, and I smelled it walking through the garage. But it wasn’t a strong smell, and “dead rat” isn’t a pleasant memory, so I did the rational thing and ignored it.

When I walked my bike through the garage Monday morning on my way to work, the smell was stronger. However, our neighbor also had a landscape crew in his yard and they were spreading compost right by our garage door. My brain decided to make the pleasant association of the smell with the compost rather than the unpleasant association with “dead rat.”

Tuesday morning, I thought to myself, “Phew, that’s some really pungent compost that Doug put in his yard.”

Tuesday evening, though, my brain ran out of ways to suppress the unpleasant memory. When I got home, standing at the garage door (right next to Doug’s composted yard) and typing our entry code into the keypad, there was no smell. Walking into the garage, the stench was unbearable. There was no way to ignore it any more — there was something dead in our house.

The mystery was: What was dead, and where? Remembering the rat in the attic, I looked around the walls and the ceiling for voids where a rat could have squeezed in and died. I couldn’t see anything. There were no rat droppings in the garage itself. The walls, ceiling, and floor of our garage are more solid than the rest of our house and I dreaded the thought that a rat found some way to scurry around unnoticed. I didn’t have much time before I had to leave to take the boys to piano lessons, though, so I gave up and texted Molly, warning her to pay attention to the smell when she got home and that it was probably a dead rat.

Molly was the one who realized the obvious: The rat was probably in or behind some of the junk in our garage. “I’ll love you forever,” she told me when I came home from the boys’ piano lessons, “if you go down and pull the stuff away from the walls.”

I really didn’t want to. It was dark out. I wasn’t mentally ready. Won’t she love me forever anyway? Could it wait until the morning?

“I’m worried the car will stink if we wait overnight,” Molly countered.

“Fine. I’ll move the car out of the garage!” was my answer.

When I went to move the car, the garage was pitch black. I don’t know why I decided to use a flashlight to do a quick peek at the stuff around the walls rather than turn on the one bare light bulb, but that’s what I did. As I swept the light around, I still saw no obvious place where a rat could hide.

Then I shined the light into the bookcase and jumped back a foot when I saw a tuft of fur between the rolled-up kitchen mat and the car seat. I found the body.

I still wasn’t mentally ready, so I went back upstairs and told Molly that I found it. It turns out she’d also seen the tuft of fur. However, just as my brain preferred to associate the smell with “compost” rather than “dead animal,” her brain sought a more pleasant explanation for what she saw. “It looked too nice to be a rat,” she said, “so I hoped one of the kids had stuck one of their stuffed animals into the bookcase.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t look like a rat,” I said. “I think it’s a squirrel.”

“I want to see the dead squirrel!” Patrick exclaimed, excited.

“No!” I said. “I am not ready to deal with this yet.”

Alex wanted to know what would happen if the squirrel wasn’t really dead, but instead had glowing red eyes. “Hmm,” I said. “Maybe it will bite me and give me his powers and I’ll turn into Squirrel-Man.”

Molly & I decided we’d get rid of the squirrel after dinner. That gave us time to work out our strategy. When the rat died in the attic, we called the pest company and they carried the carcass out in a ziplock bag. That was my plan: put the squirrel into a ziplock. If it fit. Molly wanted to avoid seeing or dealing with the body at all if we could help it. Since the squirrel was in a bunch of junk we were going to throw out anyway, maybe we could just move it all straight into a garbage bag? No matter what approach we took, what do we do with the body once it’s bagged? Internet research provided the answer. In the city of Seattle, dead animals less than 15 pounds just go into the trash. (Eww.)

In the warmth and light of the kitchen, we decided to prepare for both strategies and decide what to do when we saw things up close. So we assembled our body-disposal equipment: Latex gloves, big black garbage bags, gallon ziplocks, and headed downstairs. The kids followed, excited.

Staring at the bookcase and the fur poking out, I figured out what probably happened. I’m sure the kitchen mat accumulated lots of delicious food smells. Because our garage door is so loud, we frequently leave it open if we know we’d just be opening it again before too long. (For instance, the first one home often leaves the garage door open until the second one of us gets home.) So, during one of those times the garage door was open, a squirrel smelled something good and scrambled in to the middle of the rolled-up and tied kitchen mat, but then got stuck. The mat was still upright with the squirrel body inside.

Assessing the situation, Molly’s plan of “throw everything away” seemed better than “pick up the squirrel and put it in a ziplock.” Tossing the entire kitchen mat would be the rodent equivalent of carrying a dead body in a rolled-up carpet. So Molly got the garbage bag ready, and I tried to twist-and-scoop to move the kitchen mat to horizontal from vertical while keeping the squirrel tucked inside.

This shows I really have no experience with dead bodies. I imagined a squirrel carcass affected by rigor mortis. Stiff, maybe a little dried out. Nope! Apparently, at this stage of decay, there’s really nothing holding the body together. The squirrel ripped in half where its body was poking out from the edge of the mat. The rear half and tail fell to the floor and the front half stayed tucked in to the mat. Maggots spilled out and writhed everywhere.

That was the low point of the night. My memory of the next few moments isn’t that clear. I remember Molly going “eww eww eww” and retreating for a little while into the basement. My brain was in the “well, there’s no turning back, just get this job done” mode. The part of it that controlled “disgust” turned off and I got the mat, the bottom half of the squirrel, and all of the maggots into a garbage bag. Then Molly and I together bagged up everything else that was in the Bookcase of Junk. The bags went into an empty garbage can and out of our house.

The kids’ reactions were interesting. Patrick wanted to know why mom ran away. Alex was happy that he had a really good story to tell his classmates the next day. Me, I’m just glad the whole thing is over, and I’m really glad it was just a single daring, lost squirrel who wandered in through our open garage door and not that rats found some new way into our house.

I’m also glad there were no glowing red eyes and that I didn’t pick up any squirrel powers.