Per Ardua Ad Astra

They’re sitting in the empty ball diamond in the woods when Lloyd sees a cardboard box moving through the tall grass just inside the left-field tree line. He watches for a few seconds while Mona chatters about baking shows, finally points, maybe just to confirm he’s not gone crazy. Mona sees it too then, gasps and stands. They head over together, Mona trailing behind. It’s an Amazon box, the small kind you get when you order a pack of coffee filters. A squirrel’s tail and hind legs protrude from a hole in the box’s side.

“How’d he manage that?” Mona says and laughs.

Lloyd, closer than her, says nothing, can see the duct tape wound around the animal’s middle where it disappears into the cardboard.

The box is slowing now, moving in lazy figure eights. Lloyd stops it, carries it back to a picnic table, the squirrel’s small rear legs scrabbling in air. He can smell the animal’s musky, desperate scent. Mona follows at a distance, clutches her arms to her chest.

“Maybe just put him down. He’s going to have a heart attack.”

Lloyd asks Mona to hold the box, but she won’t touch it. He steadies it with his left hand, extracts his keychain knife with his right, scores the tape around the hole, a final tearing before the animal tumbles to the table, then to the grass. It’s away then, though it stops twenty feet off, lolling on its side, panting.

“Oh,” Mona says. “He’s hurt.”

But the squirrel is gone before she’s finished speaking, vanishing into the brush. Lloyd stares down at the box, at the cleanly cut hole and the layered tape, at the rough spot on the flap where the mailing label has been torn away.

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