A collection of short stories from the mind of Alex Maher
Copyright 2016 Alex Maher
Published by Alex Maher at Shakespir
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I was never a huge Alice Cooper fan. It’s not that I didn’t, not, like his stuff, I just never had any of it. See I grew up in a household where Pink Floyd, Led Zep, and Queen ruled the turntable. Not that I was allowed to go near dad’s stereo.
I remember once back in the early eighties getting my arse tanned for playing one of dad’s records. I’m thinking it was Queen’s “Night at the Opera”? I was trying to record it to a cassette for my hand me down Sony Walkman my sister gave me. There was always a certain charm in recording stuff to cassette. Maybe it was the element of danger that the magnetic tape would spin off the reels and get mangled inside the play mechanism.
Dad was out and I had the vinyl spinning and volume cranked to the max. Then dad came home. Man, I jumped so high I recon I would have made Michael Jordan look like he glue on his shoes. I rushed to pull the vinyl from the turntable quick smart, misjudged it and, well we all know what the sound of a needle scratching across a record sounds like. That was followed by my old man shouting all kinds of abuse my way and his hand across my backside, and my mum trying to calm him down.
It was a few months later he got me my own record player. I guess it was a peace offering, and a way to stop me playing his one. It was some second hand, bright orange piece of crap, but it played records and I thought it was at the Bee’s Bollocks, Ducks Nuts and Cats Pyjamas all in one. I saved up my pocket money, then went out and bought myself a few albums of my own from the record store in town.
They were crap, of course. I chose them based on the pictures adorning the front covers, rather than the artists who recorded them. “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space” (I shit you not, that was the first album I ever bought – man I wish I still had it), “Smash Hits Eighty … something” with a bikini clad chick in big sunglasses on the front and Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare.”
It’s Alice that comes to mind as I write this intro. As good as Leonard Nimoy was, his music from outer space may have to wait until I find some SciFi stories to write. You see, these three stories I have for you were all dreams, no, more nightmares that I have had. Each one woke me (in a cold sweat on one occasion) and when I checked the clock, it was 3 am. I’ve tried to keep as close as possible to the dream. To ‘write it true’ as they say. I open the door to my head and invite you inside. Mind the cobwebs. And in the immortal words of Alice cooper. Welcome to my nightmare, I think you’re gonna like it.
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 centre 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 favourites; 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 greens 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 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 wine 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.
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.
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Please, open the door to my head, step inside and mind the cobwebs. Allow me to share with you, three short stories based on my dreams, or nightmares if you prefer. Whether it be the end of the world through the eyes of a little girl trapped in a pet store. Or perhaps, a young boy who discovers the legend about the village pond were more than simple stories told to frighten children, or maybe the tale of a young writer who wins a trip to visit Stephen King himself. Have a seat by the fire, and let my nightmares take you for a ride.