The rabbit is on fire, leaping out of the smoke, eyes wide, legs thumping at the ground. Its legs push against Peter’s chest, propelling itself up and over him — a rabbit-fireball. Peter tries to stand but falls deeper into the bags of dried dog food. The black smoke swirls up towards the high roof of the pet shop, spreads out in all directions, hitting walls and spilling to the ground. So much smoke. Near the exit, a snake with a ball of white fur, a hamster, in its jaw.
Moving is too difficult. Easier to stay still, to do nothing.
Peter couldn’t do nothing — he had to do something. Four months earlier, before the cats, before the pet shop, before the rabbit-fireball, it began with him doing something about his tropical fish.
Walking down the bank to the canal, water sloshed up and out of the jug, wetting his t-shirt. He submerged the jug of fish, watched each one disappear beneath the black water. He remembered choosing each fish — ten of them — each a different colour, size and shape. The man in the pet shop used a small net to catch them. For days after Peter wanted to work in a pet shop so he could spend his days using a small net to catch tropical fish.
With the cost of electricity and food, he figured there would be a saving of around £100 over the lifetime of the fish. It was a start.
There was no chance the tropical fish would survive in the canal — he knew that. But with Lionel Messi, it was different. He figured Lionel Messi would prefer life in Bluebell Wood. Corn snakes, indigenous to North America, he figured would feel right at home in the woods. He left the frozen mice beneath a tree so the snake had something to eat while learning to hunt the real thing.
He didn’t even miss his pets — not really. And he knew he was doing the right thing — doing his bit.
But within a week he grew restless, knowing there were so many more pets out there. Even in his own home, there was his mom’s cat, a silver Egyptian Mau called Mo, who returned each day to feed and mither his mom for attention. Of all pets, he hated cats the most; and it was clear that of all humans, Mo hated Peter the most. He considered losing Mo somehow, maybe even killing her; but his mom was so attached to her, the moment he considered doing it he felt guilty. There was something in the way Mo looked at him too that communicated intelligence, or thought; cats were different to his fish or his snake.
It started to eat him up, seeing pets everywhere: dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, mice, fish, snakes, turtles… At number 38, they had a chipmunk. A Chipmunk.
All this doing-something-about-it began on a Wednesday morning at school.
Mrs Grainger, with crossed arms, inhaling deeply, turned to the whiteboard. She pointed to images of dogs and cats.
‘Who has a pet at home?’ Mrs Grainger asked.
Peter raised his hand, ready to tell the class all about his tropical fish and Lionel Messi, maybe even Mo.
‘Thank you class,’ Mrs Grainger said, scanning the many raised hands. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘I want you all to make a prediction. We’ve practised this. I want you to predict how much money is spent on pets in the USA each year. Take your time. Work with your partner. You have 2 minutes.’
The class erupted in discussion. Peter turned to Josephine.
‘Must be in the thousands,’ Josephine said to him.
‘Millions,’ Peter said, shaking his head. ‘There are millions of people in America. Has to be millions.’
Only Harpreet had thought to raise it to billions. ‘Six billion dollars,’ he said to the class, like he was bidding for a rare painting. Everyone laughed. But Mrs Grainger’s face was serious.
‘Good Harpreet,’ she said, nodding. ‘But you’re still not quite there.’
A number appeared on the board, a number with too many zeros to make any sense.
‘Can anyone tell me how much money that is?’ Mrs Grainger asked.
Harpreet raised his hand. ‘Sixty Billion dollars,’ he said, like he was upping his earlier bid.
‘Excellent Harpreet.’ Mrs Grainger was nodding, her face glowing, her arms crossed, her body turning towards the number on the whiteboard.
There were gasps, talk of exaggeration, of it being a joke.
Mrs Grainger spoke slowly, ‘Sixty billion dollars a year. On pets. In one year. And that’s only the USA.’ The class was silent. ‘In 2008, the United Nations worked out how much it would cost to end world hunger.’ She paused, looked around the class, her face hard, her mouth downturned, her eyes wide. A number appeared on the board. ‘30 Billion dollars per year.’ Again, she paused. Without saying anything she started a film. It faded in from black to show an African girl in a dirty pink dress looking at the camera. The girl on the board stared back at the class with wide eyes. The images moved to three more African children, lying naked on dirty sheets in a dark room. There were so many flies. Peter wondered why no one was swatting them away. He’d glimpsed images like these before on TV, just as his mom changed the channel. But Mrs Grainger wanted him to see them. He heard Josephine sniffing. She was crying, but he didn’t want her to know he knew she was crying and so ignored her. Peter couldn’t work out why the faces on the film were so still, why none of them were crying, why none of them were screaming for help. Peter felt a heaviness in his stomach, just below his chest, where his crying started. But there was no way he was going to cry in the classroom, in front of Mrs Grainger, in front of his friends, and so he looked away from the screen and drew 3D boxes in the margins of his book.
When the film ended Mrs Grainger said, ‘I know that wasn’t nice to see, but I think you’re all old enough now.’ And that was all she said.
At lunch time, Peter’s friends talked about how it made no sense to one minute talk about pets and the next talk about starving kids in Africa. Jaimie and David asked why if the Africans were so poor, they had such fat bellies. Peter didn’t know why, but he knew it had nothing to do with eating too much food.
That night, Peter couldn’t sleep. He watched his tropical fish, in their purple-lit world, drifting by one another. When he used the bathroom, through the window he saw Mo walking across the fence in the back garden. Opening the window further, he watched Mo stop, turn her head and blink slowly at him. A moment later Mo turned back to her delicate walk along the fence, her fat belly skimming the top of it.
Some of the parents complained about the video and Mrs Grainger had to apologise to the class. But when she apologised, Peter knew she didn’t mean it.
When Peter asked Mrs Grainger what he could do — how he might help children in Africa — she gave him a plastic bucket with ‘Change for Africa,’ written on it.
‘Make sure you tell your mom what you’re doing,’ she told him. ‘Bring it back when you’ve collected the money and I’ll send it on.’
Mrs Grainger ruffled his hair and told him what he was planning to do was amazing.
Standing inside the supermarket on Church Road, Peter shook his bucket at shoppers, asking them to donate their change. ‘Change for Africa?’ he asked. It felt strange asking for money because most people ignored him, making him feel like a beggar. Some people shrugged and patted their pockets. Others smiled at him, lifting their carrier bags to show they had no spare hands. Some of them walked quickly, made a face that said: sorry, in a rush. He couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t think to carry a bucket with them and ask for money for Africa.
After nearly three hours of collecting, he was nearing £5.
He walked outside the supermarket, his head heavy, his bucket light. He looked along Church Road, onto the car park. Stood next to the car park was a man in a fluorescent yellow tabard holding a bucket like his. There was a dog at his feet. As he watched the man talk to the people who walked past, he noticed people stop and give the man and his dog what appeared to be more money in two minutes than he’d collected in three hours.
The following day Peter went to another supermarket, and this time told people he was collecting for animals. He covered his bucket with pictures of dogs and cats. It worked; he made nearly thirty seven pounds in two hours. He didn’t tell Mrs Grainger, but figured if he was doing it for the right reasons, she wouldn’t mind.
Mrs Hilton, the lady who lived next door, had a bird called Blue. It was something like a parrot — a large blue bird that squawked continuously. Could hear it through the walls: ‘Here he is,’ or, ‘Hello Blue.’
His mom had a key to Mrs Hilton’s back door, in case of emergencies. With his mom at work, and Mrs Hilton at bingo, Peter let himself in. The bird was huge, plump with its grey-blue feathers, its head bobbing forwards, backwards, up, down. It squawked, ‘Hello Blue, hello Blue,’ and shuffled sideways on its perch, one way then the other. The window in the kitchen was always open a little; Peter pushed it open a little more.
Opening the bird cage, he offered his hand. Almost straight away, the bird hopped onto his hand, its talons wrapped around his fingers. ‘Here he is,’ Blue said. ‘Here he is.’
He held Blue out of the window to make sure it was possible he’d escape that way. At first Blue’s claws gripped more tightly, his feathers puffed up around his neck, his beak squawking over and over, ‘Hello Blue.’ Peter shook his hand and Blue fluttered down onto the patio outside the back door. Following the bird outside, Peter watched as Blue preened itself, puffed out its chest and feathers.
‘Come on Blue,’ he said. ‘Freedom.’ He stamped his foot next to the bird, and in a clumsy unfurling of feathers and wing, the bird was in the air and climbing towards the trees at the end of the garden.
Peter checked there were no signs he’d been inside the house and locked the back door. By the time he left the garden the bird was gone.
That night, listening to his mom console Mrs Hilton, Peter estimated the money saved. Mo was on his mom’s lap, blinking slowly, watching him.
The vermin killer pellets cost £11.99 and the bottle of ammonia, £10. He didn’t want to spend any of the money he’d collected, but figured it was an investment. His twin cousins each had a hamster. After singing happy birthday, he crept up to their bedroom and placed three vermin killer pellets in each cage, swirling them around inside the bowls of food.
The next day he listened to his Mom talking to his Auntie Beryl on the phone.
‘That’s horrible,’ his mom said. ‘Both of them? Strange.’
His mom’s friend, Julie, had a huge fish tank, all bubbling and fizzing with electric contraptions. When his mom and Julie were finishing up talking in the kitchen, he tipped a good helping of the ammonia he’d hidden in a plastic water bottle. Again, that night, he heard his mom talking on the phone. ‘All of them? Odd.’ When both his mom and Mo gave him a look, he thought it best to cool it for a while.
The first cat he caught was a black one. Its tail flickered and swiped across the ground. It stood and walked towards him, its shoulders rising one at a time through its short black fur. He held the cat, stroked it, rubbed his catnip gloves all over its body. The cat purred. Even when he placed it on the ground, it nuzzled against his legs, wanting to be stroked some more. Peter walked away, all the time calling the cat to follow him. When he made it to the canal, he picked up the cat and stroked it some more. He took the knife from his pocket and cut its throat. The cat made a screeching noise when he started cutting and jumped out of his hands. He chased after it, following the blood, found it under the bridge on the tow path, on its side, motionless. He put the cat inside a bin liner, along with rocks, and lowered it into the canal.
He didn’t like hearing the cat screech the way it did, and he really didn’t like to see so much blood. Researching, he found a better way to do it. It was a quick stabbing movement on the back of the neck, up into the skull. And it worked. It was instant. Silent. When he tried it for the first time, on a long haired cat similar to Mo, it was peaceful. And he got good at it. Really good.
Peter used seven different bus routes that summer, killing 27 cats. He worked out cats cost around £300 a year to keep. And if a cat lived ten years, that was £3000. 27 cats x £3000 = £81,000. This was equivalent to 4,050 malaria inoculations.
During the holidays, at the same time he was killing cats, Peter continued to collect money in supermarkets. He had regulars who talked to him, even gave him notes instead of coins. One of the older ones often asked him to watch his dog, Charlie, while he did his shopping. Charlie, an old sheepdog, looked up at him, as though Peter was giving off some sort of cat-killing expertise. He’d given some thought to how he might kill dogs, but he still couldn’t bring himself to do it.
All was going well until he visited his cousins’ house again two weeks after starting back at school. He’d ignored the idea that people might replace the pets he’d killed; but there they were, three new hamsters, in three new cages. Peter didn’t speak all night. When his cousin placed one of the hamsters in his upturned hand he resisted the urge to crush it in his fist like a used Coke can.
Peter didn’t collect for two weeks after that, and he stopped killing pets.
He spoke to Mrs Grainger again about how much money was needed to end world hunger; the weight of the task led to him taking three days off school.
But on a Sunday evening, unable to sleep, he came up with a plan.
Pets for U closed at 5.30 on Fridays. In one corner of the shop was a collection of dog kennels. He crept inside a small red kennel and waited for everyone to leave.
Waiting for it to go dark, he checked his bag and worked through his plan. Checking his phone, he replied to his mom’s usual text from work about her being home around ten.
Unsure, like a scared dog, he peered out of the kennel. With no one there, he clambered out, stretching his arms above his head. Along the wall to his left were rows of fish tanks, humming with filtration systems, heaters and lights. Now and then he heard the fidgeting of animals in straw and sawdust. There was the occasional thump, squeak, rattle. He looked at the birds at the far end of the shop; as if they knew what he was thinking, they flapped their wings, hopped from one perch to another.
He walked through the pet shop, looking at the prices marked up next to everything. The cages, the sawdust, the food, the animals… all of it was for sale. He stooped to look at the rabbits, some of them grey, some of them black, some of them white with red eyes. They hopped and nose-twitched and thumped their back feet. And they had prices too. Different prices, one more expensive than the next. Some had long fur, some short. He moved to the hamster cages. They were busy; a faint orange light in the corner of the box illuminated the writhing mass of different coloured fur. He imagined his cousins holding each hamster, their hands moving like a treadmill, asking the hamster to tread from one hand to the next.
The canaries and the budgies, hopping from one perch to the other, hardly opening their wings, seemed only to pretend to fly. Peter considered the breeding, the selection of colours and markings that must have gone into these birds. And there they were: dumb, frantic with colour, eager.
He walked along the tanks of snakes, geckos, chameleons, frogs, salamanders, turtles, tortoises, lizards, spiders… This was where he’d found Lionel Messi. There was one just like him, only smaller, in a tank next to a python. At the bottom there were tanks filled with live food: grasshoppers, crickets, worms, cockroaches.
He looked at his watch. He needed to be home in an hour. Beginning in the reptile section, he opened tanks, grabbed snakes and threw them to the floor. He shook the live food out of their tanks. He couldn’t free the fish and so instead turned off the power to the filtration systems and water heaters. He then opened the bird cages and watched as the store filled with birds flying from one corner to the next. Many of then hopped across the ground as though overwhelmed with the sheer size of the world. The noise in the shop grew, and more and more he felt he was moving through a wilderness, or jungle. He opened the cages to the mice, the hamsters and other rodents, collecting handfuls in his gloves and throwing them to the floor. They scurried and scattered, running along skirting boards to find corners. He couldn’t believe how fast the rabbits moved; the moment he opened their cages, they hurtled from one part of the shop to the other, now and then stopping to twitch their noses, before hurtling off in some other direction.
He looked to the bags of hay stacked in one corner of the shop. He took out his lighter and rolled the wheel. A flame jumped out of the metal casing. A rabbit shot between his legs kicking out at a snake scudding across the floor.
In seconds, the wall of hay, sawdust and bedding, was alight. He had no idea fire made such noise, was so fierce. It struck him then how he’d not considered how he’d get out of the shop. He recalled vague notions of breaking windows, of undoing locks, of opening windows. But with all the intricacies of getting into the place and remaining undetected, he’d ignored the details of his escape. He stumbled, falling into a display of dried dog food.
The rabbit is on fire, kicking off his chest, jumping over him. All the rabbit knows is its thumping legs and the flames burning it alive.
Crawling, Peter reaches the glass doors. He recalls how earlier the same doors opened automatically when he walked towards them. But now, the doors are closed. He strikes the glass with a fist, barely making a sound. In some sort of trick of perspective, of reflection, the flames appear to grow out of the tarmac on the car park outside the pet shop. And in the flames, on the other side of the glass, is a shape he recognises, motionless: Mo.
Peter crawls closer to the glass, coughing, spluttering, a fist gripping his jumper around his neck.
Mo sits proud, like she’s guarding an ancient Pharaoh’s tomb. She raises a paw and licks along the length of it.
Peter coughs again, chest burning, head pounding.
There’s a loud thud; its the rabbit, on fire, having run into the glass doors. Its body twitches on the ground.
Outside, Mo walks towards the glass doors, and for a moment, Peter imagines the doors opening automatically. He imagines the relief, the cool air, the expanse of sky above, the ability to breathe. But the doors don’t open. Mo blinks lazily, moves her head sideways, up and down, swishes her tail. Her chest swells with a deep breath, and then deflates.
Peter thumps the glass with the side of his hand one more time. His fist opens so the palm of his hand rests against the glass. There is no air to swallow. His head swirls like the smoke covering him.
Inside the flames and smoke outside on the car park, Mo raises her chin, and then lowers it. From beneath and behind her, seven kittens appear, tumbling, swiping at one another. The last thing Peter sees is two of the kittens huddled beneath Mo, reaching to be fed.
Adam Lock wakes far too early in the morning, in Black Country, UK, attempting to take the smaller happenings in life and explode them in a way that resonates with importance for the reader. When he struggles to do this he makes another cup of tea.