The dream started normally enough.
She was at work, at one of the large retail pet store chains. Her arm was soaked to the elbow as she scraped and scrubbed the algae of the blue backing and front acrylic of hundreds of tanks.
It was soothing, normal.
The customer was normal, too. He had a box in his arms. He examined the aviary for a few moments then approached. He held up a battered cardboard pet carrier like an accusation.
“My parakeet died.” He stated, wielding the words like a weapon. The man seemed to think that no other words were necessary. His eyes gave away the confrontation he was prepared to engage in. This was normal, too.
“Did you notice anything unusual?” She asked. A lot of people were surprisingly unconcerned about animal death, but the details could nearly always be teased out. She lifted the bird from the box. She had sold this one only a few days ago.
“No, but I’m sure there is some kind of disease in your birds and I want a refund! I don’t want another one of your sick, mass produced birds!”
She sighed, internally. This was normal, too. The bird was light in her hands.
“How was he eating before he died?”
“Well, I bought those pellets but he didn’t seem to like them much.”
“Any seeds, fruits or veggies?” She already knew the answer. It was just normal ritual at this point.
“Sir,” she began carefully, “parakeets and most other birds don’t switch well to pellets. You have to transition them carefully. A parakeet or a cockatiel has a high metabolism. They literally will starve themselves. The instructions are given on your care sheet and on the bag of pellets.”
As she was talking she walked to the shelf with the bird feed, grabbed the bag the man had probably bought, the bag she didn’t see him leave the store with. She turned the bag over, smoothed the crumbled plastic and showed him the instructions. The belligerence went out of the customer’s eyes as it always did.
Mumbling confusion, he took his bird back and left the store. She still would have honored his request for a refund, corporate policy dictated she do so but she had no interest in clearing the man’s confusion. Payback for his careless death and mindless accusation. For the way he had stared into the aviary looking for more dead or ill birds to justify his position.
She stood there for a while, thinking.
She had the answer. She knew what to do.
Unnoticed by customers and coworkers, she poisoned the fishtank system with an overdose of Melafix. She crushed the rodents and reptiles with her feed, snaring them in fish nets to hold them in place.
It wasn’t until she had started in on the aviary that she was caught by a manager with a parakeet in her left hand, its head twisted around in another.
That was the exact moment awareness and sanity returned to her. A moment later, she woke terrified of the realization that she had no free will.
When she got up and looked at her baby sleeping the next morning in its crib, also normal, she realized it wasn’t a matter of choice. She couldn’t choose to not love him, she couldn’t choose to suffocate him. She stumbled out into the living room.
It would only take one small quirk in her brain, one small moment of nightmare to change her perceptions, alter her choices.
She pressed her head against the glass coffee table and laughed.