A Small Dull Thing
If he stuffed them in his pockets, The House couldn’t tell whether or not Jack had eaten his green beans and would release him to play. And so that was exactly what Jack did. The House would catch him if he threw them away in the trash in either the kitchen or the dining room, and so instead he flushed them down the toilet. It takes, in case you’re curious, three flushes, if you’re going to do it without clogging. You’d think The House would have noticed, but Jack supposed that no machine was perfect.
The House wasn’t expecting him to arrive at the aviary until twelve minutes after the conclusion of dinner time, and it would only take Jack about two minutes to get anywhere in The House if he ran, which meant he could wander a bit.
Jack skipped by the windows, each one a dazzling depiction of a different part of the world. The jungles of Borneo in the first one gave way to an evening in Paris observed from the top floor of an apartment in Montmartre on to Caribou grazing the scrubby grass poking through snow on an Alaskan plane. Each one stunning and beautiful and true… presumably.
Jack ignored the spectacle and made his way deliberately to his father’s study, entering through the heavy wooden door. Jack had a fascination with the room. It felt old and formidable. It felt like it held secrets. The pictures on the walls didn’t move like the projections in the windows, but they felt more alive. And, there were artifacts in there as well. Talismans of power he longed to hold. None more so than the gun in the case under the picture of his father as a young man. In the picture his father was wearing a runner’s jersey shaking hands with a race official, a medal around his neck.
Normally Jack would have been afraid to pick up the gun, but he felt bold tonight. Slowly, he brought it out of the glass case. He marveled at its unexpected weight, felt the details and lines of it, beheld its realness. He aimed it casually around the room, mimicking the heroes of old movies he’d seen. “Bang,” he said waving it at the painting in the corner. BANG at the empty chair behind the desk, Bang at the clock on the wall. With a gasp, he realized his ten minutes of freedom were up.
He got to the aviary just in time, the lights around the entrance to the blank room blinking green in acknowledgment that he had entered. The walls were a pure white except for a small panel with a dial on the wall opposite the entrance. Jack stepped quickly across the room, knowing that The House expected him to select one of the many versions of the aviary to display.
He dutifully turned the dial, and as he did, the walls sprang to life in a flurry of scenes of the most extraordinary variety. From mythological temples filled with soaring beasts out of the pages of Ovid and Homer to Victorian conservatories populated by colorful jungle birds. He selected one at random, a recreation of a sheik’s menagerie of flying creatures. In a moment, a host of chimerical, improbable animals materialized out of the floor and floated all around. Humming and chirping, swooping and squawking, in a symphony of avian music.
They were so real.
Too real, Jack thought. They flapped with perfect physical symmetry, their strength precisely calibrated for hypothetical realism.
It was a scene that an adult would think a child would enjoy, but Jack was not the child imagined by The House, and his tastes ran more towards violent delights with violent ends.
He withdrew from his pocket the gun he plucked from the shrine his father had built to his own youth. He aimed it around as he had in the study, this time at the frail fake animals. Bang. Bang. Bang. He pointed and aimed and flicked his wrist mocking the recoil he knew guns made. Bang. Bang. Bang. Again and again. He moved between the shots, ducking behind holographic plants for cover, aiming at game projected into the air.
His thumb found the hammer of the gun, at first just flirting with the mechanism, pulling it slowly back before pointing it again. Bang. He yelled at the eagle with the head of a lion. Bang at the winged serpent, Bang, at the dragon with the coat of a peacock.
His finger pulled further and further on the hammer, dallied with the trigger. He felt the undeniable drama of the click as the hammer locked back, a thrill running through him.
He crept like a hunter, his prey taking no notice, until he spied an oddity. A dull brown thing in amongst the fanciful flights of the aviary. It was nervous and ugly, a starling maybe, and it stole Jack’s attention, mind and soul, though he didn’t know why.
The little thing flew nearer and nearer as the boy took aim. He sighted down the orange tipped barrel, hammer locked, gun primed and couldn’t stop himself from pulling the trigger, dread curiosity filling his heart.
He fell down backwards at the explosion that burst forth and saw on the ground the dull bird. It upset him lying there, so still, so real. He went to the dial and spun it hoping the small, dull thing would fade with the scenery. The scene shifted again and again, but the bird remained. He crossed back over to it, and stooped to hold the fragile thing. It was still warm, and so soft. Its heart should have beat, Jack thought, and yet it did not. There were no wounds on it, and yet it lay dead in his hand, real and suddenly beautiful. Jack longed for an authority to hold him, to comfort and scold him, but The House was silent.
He put the gun back in his pocket where it wouldn’t be found and sat down amongst the colors and fantasies The House projected for him. He was confused at the insistent tug at the sides of his mouth, frustrated by the blurring effect of unbidden tears at his eye, but couldn’t stop himself from hugging the bird to his chest.