Still Life

Thinking back on it, we should have seen the signs. We should have taken action years, decades, shit, even centuries before if we’d’ve any hopes of preventing what happened.

But that was the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it now. Much like there was nothing I could have done about it then.

My dad told me that you always remember where you were on the important days. He said he knew exactly where he was when the world trade center went down in the US, even though he was just a kid. He remembered that day for the rest of his life. I’ll remember this day for the rest of mine. Oh yes, I’ll remember.

We were in our pet shop. The parrots were in the middle. Dog and cat stuff along one wall and all the aquarium stuff along the other. The fish tanks lined the back. There were dozens of them bubbling away. I’d spend hours watching and maintaining them. It was hard work ‘specially the water changes which had to be done weekly. I enjoyed it. The Oscars were my favorites; big and aggressive.

My dad sat next to me, ever patient and always calm. Nothing ever seemed to fluster him. I was watching my mum clip a budgie’s wing for a customer. She accidentally snipped off one of its toes.

Blood spurted from the severed digit and my mum shrieked louder than the bloody budgie she held. The customer was flapping in a blind panic, and shouting abuse, along with threats of lawsuits and kneecapping if “my bobby pegs out.”

I watched my dad walk past, holding a bag of plain flour which he’d taken from the freezer. I’d always wondered why he insisted that the bag was always in there. Right up in front of the frozen mice, pinkies and fuzzies. He said so that it was within easy reach, but I never got it — till that day.

I remember him talking to the customer as if this wasn’t really a problem. “Accidents happens,” he said, “as long as you’re prepared then you’ll be right.”

I watched in awe as he took the panicked bird and shhh’d it to a calm, then added the flour to the bleeding toe and pinched. The flour bloomed scarlet, and a few drops hit the blue laminate bench he leant on as he worked. The bleeding stopped. The bird, it’s little green chest, rising and falling in gasping breaths slowed, and, as if by magic, the poor creature calmed down.

He held the flour there for a good ten minutes, all the time explaining what he was doing. Not to the customer, but to the bird. His tone was quiet, and reassuring and his movements slow and deliberate.

“He’ll limp for a while, but he’ll be fine,” he told the customer, and gently placed ‘Bobby’ back onto the perch. I remember watching the crippled thing hopping along the branch leaving little flour footprints wrapped around the wood.

Mum had gone out back, to the freezers behind the wall of fish tanks. I poked my head through the curtains and saw her frowning at her hands, trying to stop the shakes which seemed to be getting worse.

“Nerves,” she told me “just nerves.”

Thinking back on it, I knew that this was something else though. Something darker than the jitters from slipping and cutting off a budgie’s toe.

I pulled myself up onto the chest freezer to sit next to her. Behind me sat the multitude of pipes, hoses, and electrical chords all feeding the fish tanks with air and heat.

We kept the baby birds out back too. It was always warm, noisy as all hell but warm and the birds didn’t seem to mind the constant whine of the air pumps. It was auto pilot that made me pick up one of the baby cockatiels from the little plastic nest boxes we used. It looked at me with its alien bug-eyed expression, then the realisation that it was about to get fed hit its tiny brain and the neck stretched up. The little white fluffy wings extended and the tiny thing started squeaking.

Mum passed me the tub of hand raising mix she’d been preparing and I filled the syringe via the soft rubber nozzle. The little bird took the tube, and I made sure it went right to left, just like mum and dad had showed me. It slurped down the warm mix, then shook its tiny head. The squeaks had triggered the rest of the babies still in the box to start their own cries for attention.

“Mum…”

Her attention was on her tablet, streaming a live news cast.

“… polar ice caps have been reported melting and falling into the sea off the coast of Antarctica. Sources are saying they have lost contact with the research station …”

It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but that news cast was the start of it all.

“Mum!” The little bird squirmed in my hands, “needs to be a little hotter, they aren’t interested.”

“Ok love, just a tick.”

“What’s a pandemic mumma?” I wasn’t really interested, my focus was more on the baby bird squirming in my hand, desperate for a feed, but the word sounded interesting.

Mum reached out for the old style kettle, the type that whistled when it boiled, and you still needed to flick the off switch. Still, I always liked the old stuff; it had a certain charm to it.

When the shrieking died down, she poured the steaming water into a container. I floated the tub of formula on top of the scalding liquid to warm. The birds in their plastic container nest continued call out and stretch their pink pencil necks.

“Give it a minute, little ones.”

They reached up and tried to feed off my pinky. Mum looked on. She had this smile I’ll never forget. I try to hold onto that smile when I feel sad. She used to love watching me as I fed the babies.

In my hand was a little Lutino, it’s pink eyes blinked and it tiny white fluffy head bobbed up and down.

“It’s eyes are just like yours,” mum said, followed by “my baby feeding babies.”

I looked at the little bird sitting in my hand. Its tiny scarlet eyes were the same as mine. It’s fluffy white feathers matched the colour of my hair. I wondered if it got picked on by the other birds, like I did at school. I wondered if the sun would burn its skin the same as it burnt me when I played outside for too long.

I wondered if it hated being albino as much as I did.

I looked up at mum and smiled. She had her usual proud look as she watched over me; however, there was a small trickle of blood dashed across her lip.

“Mum,” I pointed up at her, then brushed under my nose to show her “you must have got a splash from the budgie when you cut its toe.”

She reached up, then we both realised that the scarlet trickle was coming from her nose.

The door buzzer signalled that ‘Bobby’ had left, along with his severed toe. I don’t know what Dad had said or done, but he was smiling when he joined us around the back. That changed when he saw mum. He grabbed some paper towels and handed over to her. Her hands were shaking almost uncontrollably by now.

Her eyes locked onto mine, filled with fear. “Hun.”

Thinking back on it, I didn’t know if she was addressing me or dad. That was all she said. “Hun.”

She stopped shaking after that. She stopped shaking, talking. She stopped moving. She just stared at me with those fear-filled eyes and her mouth half open with a slight trickle of red navigating its way down towards her chin and dripping onto to the laminated floor.

“Abigail, go grab Mr. Chase from the chemist, hurry.”

I froze, the little bug-eyed alien bird still in my hand. My mum stood equally frozen before me, unblinking and statuesque.

“Abs. Now.” I snapped out of my gaze and put the little bird back in its box. I jumped off the freezer, kicking my school bag, and spilling the contents across the floor.

“Hun, it’s ok,” Dad was wiping the constant red trickle from her nose as he spoke. I heard his ever calm voice waiver as I dashed through the shop door.

It was a warm and sunny afternoon. Not unusual for this time of year. The carpark, which was really just an indent off the main road, was full. Once again, nothing unusual about that, not that I noticed in my state of panic anyway.

The chemist was three shops down from our pet shop. I sprinted past the baker’s, normally I’d be sneaking in for an iced finger bun or a fresh lamination, but not today. Alongside them sat the doctor’s surgery. It was Saturday, he wouldn’t be there until Monday so Mr. Chase, the chemist, was the next best thing. I knew he’d be there.

He’d quite often come round the back and have a couple of drinks with mum and dad when they’d all be finished for the day.

Inside the chemist stood three, or four people. They waited patiently inline to be served. A mother bent down soothing a baby in a pram, one of those three wheeled ones that people used when they jogged down on the waterfront. And old lady and a man in a suit. At first I didn’t notice. I rushed past them all to the front.

“Mr. Chase… Mr. Chase,” silence came the reply, “Mums sick Mr. Chase, can you come. Quick.”

By now I was starting to cry. My eleven-year-old self was starting to get a little scared. I turned to see if any of the other grown-ups in the line could help. Maybe they would know what to do or where Mr. Chase was.

The businessman stood staring ahead, a trickle of blood decorated his comic book grey moustache. The old lady behind, leant forward on her walker, the drips tapping at the pseudo leather seat. Her knuckles white and bulged as she clutched the handles. Her head was turned to look at the young mother, also frozen and staring at the baby, in turn stuck in a doll-like pose. Each person still as a statue. Each with a dapple of red smeared across their chins, dripping down from their nasal openings and splashing across the floor. All except the little old lady who’s blood tapped out a constant four-four rhythm on her fake leather seat. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Tap.

My hand found its way to my mouth. I could feel the fear rising up within me readying itself to take control and reduce my eleven-year-old self to tears. The bravery left me and I fled the chemist. Outside, back in the street, the sun seemed that little bit lower. It glinted off the glass from the cars parked and dazzled my tear-blurred eyes.

I ran back to our shop and burst through the door; the buzzer signalled my arrival.

“He’s not there. They are all frozen. Daddy. Dad?”

Dads figure was visible through the tanks as I ran towards the back of the store. I could see him. Hands raised. Phone in one hand and a paper towel in the other. Maybe he had managed to get hold of a doctor or something. Maybe he got hold of Mr. Chase.

“There all like mum,” I pushed through the little curtain which formed some kind of entrance to the back of the shop. “Daddy they are all th-”

He stood in front of me. Eyes locked on my mum. I could hear the phone’s bipbipbip still clasped within his hand.

“Daddy?” I heard myself say. My voice seemed too quiet within my head. “Mum?”

“Dad. Dad,” I shook him and the phone dropped to the floor, smashed and sent shards of screen under the fish tank stands.

“Mum?”

“Daddy?”

My fragile state of mind broke, and the tears flowed. I curled up into a little ball and cried. I crawled under the fish tank stand and cuddled my dad’s smashed phone, unable to comprehend what the hell was going on. The man on the news cast still talking about a global pandemic coming from the Antarctic, then he too stopped talking. Maybe the tablet’s battery ran out.

An almighty crash snapped me out my stupor. A car had run up the back of another. A truck ploughed through the fender bender turning our little carpark into a mass of twisted metal.

I ran outside and stared at the carnage around me. Twisted metal, steaming bonnets pushed into all kinds of shapes. Faces pushed into airbags, and cars sat at crazy angles on top of each other. I looked around dumb struck. It was the noise more than anything that struck me. Or I guess the lack of it. Just the tick tick of a wheel spinning from an upturned car and the voice on a radio urging people to stay inside, then enjoy the latest hits of today and the yesterday.

Cars wrecked. People stood still. Things exploded, nobody screamed. Or cried. Or moaned. Or moved.

A few more cars slammed into to wreckage, and I ran back inside.

I hid under the fish tanks, clutching my dad’s smashed phone again and rocked myself back and forth unable to comprehend what was happening. My parents, seemingly nothing more than fleshy mannequins staring at each other.

Outside the sun dipped behind the houses opposite out little pet shop. I could see the faded white weatherboards turning pink as the days end painted them in a dusky light. The smoke from the car wrecks spewed into the salmon skies, and the acrid stench of burning rubber stung my eyes as fumes wafted through the open shop door.

It was quite dark when I opened my eyes. My tummy rumbled. It took me a little while to sum up the courage to crawl out from underneath the tank stands, and I slid over to where my parent stood.

“Mum … Dad …?”

I reached up and touch my dad’s hand. He was cold and clammy. I’d been around enough dead things from when we lost baby animals to know what a dead things felt like.

I ignored my growling tummy and climbed onto the chest freezer, curled up next to mum using my jumper as a pillow and closed my wet eyes tight and wished I could wake up and everything would be ok.

When I woke. The street outside was bathed in yellow from the overhead lights. From where I lay I could see the summer bugs and Christmas beetles flitting and swarming at the florescent lights in our window. Normally, I’d have run outside, trying to collect the little bugs to feed to the Oscars, but not that night. It seemed like that night; the bugs were the only thing left moving.

Through the phone’s spiderweb of broken glass, I could see that it was 2 am and the rumbles from my guts reminded me that I needed to eat something. Sitting on top of the fridge was a share bag of Burger Rings. Normally, they’d have been reserved for school lunches, or the occasional treat with mum when dad wasn’t looking. Dad’s eyes stared ever towards mum as I reached up and took the share bag from the top of the fridge.

“I’m sorry daddy,” I looked at him, wishing that he’d chastise me for taking the bag. The sound of him getting grumpy would be heaven to my ears as that would have been normal.

I tore open the bag and gobbled the puffed potato snacks down, shovelling handfuls into my mouth.

Every now and then I’d glance over my shoulder, through the watery fish tank vista onto the street outside, and then back to my parents. My young imagination re-playing scenes from all the stupid zombie shows that I loved to watch, without mum and dad knowing. I thought that I was being so clever, sneaking my iPod into bed and viewing well into the night. I didn’t feel so clever anymore. Just frightened out of my mind, waiting for my parents to start moving again, but instead of loving embraces and hugs, they would be reaching for me, ready to rip me limb from limb and eat my flesh.

They didn’t move, and around 4 am I grabbed a doggy-igloo and crawled inside and closed my eyes again. If zombies were to attack, perhaps, I’d go unnoticed hiding inside. Maybe this time when I woke they would be fine and this nightmare would be over.

My dad told me that you’d always remember where you were on the important days. See, I was just 11 the day the world ended. It wasn’t very spectacular. Nothing like I thought it would’ve been. More like a series of confusing incidences, which became progressively more frightening as the days passed. I’ll remember this day. Oh yes, I’ll remember.

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Thank you for reading Still life, part of the short story collection 
3am Nightmares” available on now Amazon.