The man unfolded his hands. A mouse sat content in his palm, a grey mouse with small crystalline eyes. The two little sparkles shone with a black brilliance in his palm.
‘I started out with this one.’ He husked ‘I found it on the kitchen bench, years ago, eating from the fruit bowl, mangled little thing.’
The little boy, hardly 5 years old, nodded in awe. His delicate baby hands went for the touch, but it was out of his reach. The Dad put the mouse back on the wooden branch.
‘Ha, Benny when you’re older you can touch.’
And he ruffled his hair with, what felt like sandpaper fingers, before hushing him out of the room and locking the door behind him.
A mouse, small in stature, ash-grey to be precise sat contently on a wooden branch. It looked hungry; perhaps it was searching for food, or looking for a home. Nonetheless it was on a branch. It tiny feet balancing on the oaky wood, completely oblivious to penultimate demise: Felix the stuffed pet cat. Felix hid behind the azaleas. With its spine, arched like a rainbow, the cat was ready to pounce. And behind the cat stood an elk with dusty horns. And next to it was a Black bear, glued in a bear-hug position. And in-between these animals were a variety of plants and vines and dirt and rocks and even the ringing of crickets could be heard if you were quiet enough. It was truly magnificent to see such an array of animals, trapped forever in a violent situation. Beyond the shrubberies lay an air vent, pumping coolness to the four walls, painted camouflage as if to trick the animals into thinking they weren’t stuffed carcasses. All this was neatly packed in the third door in the hallway, branded with the sign ‘The Jungle Room’.
‘So what do you have planned for the big night?’ Mum chirped
Ben shrugged, eating his pasta and watching Pokémon on the antennaed TV.
‘Hey!’ she shouted ‘Are you even listening too me?’
Another shrug did not suffice, her face wrinkled and with a swift hit she whacked him one with the sports section.
‘You’re 18 now, you shouldn’t be watching those silly cartoons.’
‘I’m going out tonight!’ he exclaimed.
‘In 20 minutes.’
‘Just promise me, don’t go to the Cross.’
He got up and hugged her, and promised her he would go local. It eased her a bit, he knew, he could tell by her unclenched jaw and its complementary scowl which seem to contort her face into a wrinkly mess. A face which seemed all too familiar to Ben.
As they exited Kings Cross Railway, Ben was excited for the night ahead. Along the sidewalk were beggars and bouncers, both equally as frightening and intriguing as he had never seen so many at the one place. The line for The World Bar snaked across the corner but they waited. It was the place to be, or so he heard from everyone from school say. So much had changed over the past month; with school ending it was difficult to cope from the sudden lack of HSC stress. But nonetheless when he got stamped, that heart-wrenching anxiety passed. Strobes of colours and bass and sticky floors flooded with emotion. His senses were saturated with the smells of sweat and cigarette. The girls were bouncing like balls on the dance floor, like a cloud of fake-tan and neon clothing. Shot after shot he relaxed and danced with friends until his feet got blisters. He needed water, but this sudden burst of drunkenness, proved it a difficult task. He stumbled to the bar and drank the warm water. And as he stood there, clenching the cup with both hands he realised, he was scared. Scared of change.
It seemed stupid to worry about such menial things but that lingering.
Why? He did not know.
His mates were in the next room but wasn’t sure he wanted to return. He didn’t like all of this; he wanted to be back at school, eating his soggy ham sandwich on the oval. He wanted to be in uniform, where his only responsibilities lay in his curriculum of Maths, Science and English. As he watched the girls dance, he would only be reminded of how his mother used to dance, and how she can barely get up from the sofa by herself. And it was the same for Dad, who would spend an increasing amount of time in his studio, working with his carcasses, looming in his formaldehyde that ironically made his skin look older. It was a dangerous way of thinking, or so he thought. He cleared his throat, put his cup down and turned around.
‘Vodka tonic thanks.’
That night, he lay contorted in bed, with a swirling head and dry mouth. The head pounding was bad. There’s no other way of describing it, and he kept replaying that night over and over and over again, tormenting himself into sickness. The ghost images of mum getting up and the girls dancing and the paraffin-like smell of tanning lotion and formaldehyde all on replay, it was pure torture. This continued till he woke suddenly and roared a violent orange milkshake into the bin next to his bed. He felt surprisingly better on an empty stomach, so he cleaned his mess and got some more water.
The neighbourhood was quiet and his parents were asleep, so he couldn’t watch TV. Bored as hell, his friends wouldn’t be online. He wandered down the corridor and decided the sneak into The Jungle Room, a place still forbidden without parental supervision. He turned the light on. Just how he remembered it all. The Bear, the deer, the elk, Felix and the mouse all welcomed him with an expected fright. The animals, stuffed and paralysed into themselves, stuck into position. They past, present and future had been mapped out and moulded with chemicals and cotton, coordinated by their creator: Ben’s dad. It was an uneasy being alone with these ‘bodies’, it dawned uncomfortably that these animals, these purported beings were not going anywhere, not going to change. It was unfair, Ben thought, that he had to change.
As he leaned on the elk’s horn, thinking angrily about his position in life, he lost balance and clung for support.
The horn dismantled and impaled Felix the cat. His face went white, still grappling the horn.
‘Shit’ he whispered.
But it did not end there; the one-horned elk lost its balance and fell to its side, hitting the brown bear’s knees. Like a domino effect, the Bear swung back and forth and fell forward, dismantling its jaw on the elk’s ass. It was blood-fest of cotton! The heavy air-conditioning kept the cotton fibres afloat, like little clouds above Ben’s head as he slowly shat his pants in fear and prayed for protection.
What’s this racket about? Dad shouted as he thumped down the hollow corridor.
Ben didn’t dare to move, still in the foetal position on the floor, clinging with his life to the stump of the horn.
‘Dad, I can explain!’ Ben pleaded
Dad’s face went from white to pink, pink to red, red to purple, purple to green and so forth but he said nothing. Silence can sometimes be the worst. Then after a few seconds, of processing the scene he made a noise. He laughed. It started with a snicker then a throaty chuckle then a full on clown laugh, which seemed to go on for hours. Ben didn’t really understand, nor did he want to so he went along with it.
Dad picked up the mouse carefully and crouched beside Ben.
‘Don’t worry about.’ He said to Ben ‘Shit happens. Nothing is forever.’
Ben nodded in relief.
‘Now let go of that horn and go put some clothes on, you weirdo’ he said. ‘We got a lot of cleaning up to do.’