There was nothing to do.
“We could watch TV,” Mike suggested.
“There’s nothing on,” I said.
“We could play some more video games.”
“I’m tired of video games.” We’d been playing video games for the last hour. Mike was over at my house, because his house was boring.
The doorbell rang. “Jacob,” my mom called. “One of your friends is at the door.”
We went to the door. It was Kevin. “Hey,” Kevin said. “You want to do something?”
Kevin, Mike and I stood around in a huddle by the front door. You wait the entire school year for summer vacation to roll around, and at first it’s great, but by August… no one would ever admit it, but you kind of want school to start again.
“We could — ” said Kevin.
“Or maybe — ” I said.
Long pause. I could hear Mom in the kitchen doing something — sweeping, throwing stuff away.
“I have an idea,” she said, poking her head out of the kitchen. “You guys could help me clean the refrigerator.”
“Mom,” I said. “It’s summer vacation.”
“Okay, then why don’t you go down to the park and feed the birds?” she said. “You can take these bags of stale bread. I was going to throw them out.”
I groaned. “Mom, that is so lame. We’re too old for that. I mean we’re almost in seventh grade.”
“Suit yourself. But you guys either come inside or go out. Don’t stand there in the doorway; you’re air conditioning the whole neighborhood.”
In the end, we went to the park. No one could come up with a better plan. We sat on a bench and threw crumbs at maybe six or seven birds—some pigeons, a couple robins, a cardinal.
“This is stupid,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Kevin. “That one’s not even real anyway.”
Mike said, “Kevin!”
“It’s not,” he insisted, pointing at the cardinal.
“Kevin, I don’t want to know which ones are real and which ones aren’t,” Mike said. He sounded testy.
“But it’s so obvious,” Kevin said.
We all stared at the fake cardinal pecking away at the bread as though it was following a metronome. It bobbed its head exactly every two seconds. Up, Peck. Up, Peck. On every fourth peck, the bird paused and warbled a song. It sounded strangely canned, like a recording of a bird singing. Which of course it was.
“Roboto-bird,” Kevin said, then. I laughed, but Mike got really mad.
“Kevin,” he said. “Why can’t you just let me pretend, okay? I mean if you hadn’t pointed it out, I would have been perfectly happy to convince myself it was a nice wild bird out in the sun.”
“Sorry.” Kevin backed down. “I was just saying.”
“Well these robot birds creep me out,” Mike said. He looked at a robin — a real one — struggling to dismantle a huge crumb. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, it dropped the crumb and flew away. “I always just like to think of birds as free, you know? Not programmed.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Kevin said, without much enthusiasm.
“I don’t know why the government wants to make all these robots anyway,” Mike said.
I cleared my throat. “Well, I guess they figure it’s better to have robot birds than no more birds at all.”
That nearly killed the conversation. I hadn’t meant to say it; it just popped out of my mouth.
I was about to change the subject — to talk about the new phone I wanted, or something, anything else — but then Mike spoke up in a grave voice: “I saw this TV show the other day about the birds. This science show on public television. It had a theory about why they were all dying off.”
There it was. Dropped like a bomb. Out in the open.
We were quiet for a few minutes.
“These scientists on the show, they called it the ‘canary in a coalmine’ effect,” Mike resumed, at last. His eyes were huge. “They said back in the old days, coal miners used to take canaries into the mines with them, because the birds had more sensitive systems than people did.
“As long as the canary kept singing, they knew the mine was safe. But if there were any toxic fumes in the mine, the bird would stop singing, and even die. The miners would know they had to evacuate.
“And then, you know, the scientists went through all the statistics.”
He didn’t have to explain “the statistics.” We knew what they were. You couldn’t log on to the Internet without confronting a new headline about toxic air pollution levels in Shanghai, or mutated flu in Sao Paulo, or yet another U.S. national park closing to make way for urban development. “We’re safe out here in the suburbs,” our parents would say, whenever the news came on. But then they’d give each other dire glances when they thought we didn’t see.
A robot sparrow landed near my foot. It pecked monotonously at an enormous crumb, unable to ingest it, yet still going through the motions of bird-like eating.
I thought about what Mike had said, and I wondered: What if the miners couldn’t evacuate when the canary gave its warning? What if they were trapped in that mine, with nowhere else to go? How long did they have before—
Kevin broke the silence. “God, Mike, you’re such a dork,” he said. “I can’t believe you watch public television.”
I took a deep breath. “I know,” I added, lightly. “I mean, we’re on vacation. What are you doing watching educational TV?”
“Yeah.” Mike shook himself, affecting a laugh. “I guess I was pretty desperate. There was nothing else on.”
Kevin said, “Let’s go play video games again.”
“Awesome,” Mike said.
We got up and headed back to my house, joking carefully about inconsequential things. Anyone who saw us would think we believed the summer was going to last forever.
Erin Ryan is an editorial assistant and copy editor who lives in Vermont, where she writes lots of science fiction.