The Veldt – Pre-Intermediate Level

“George, I wish you’d look at the play-room.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, then…”

“I just want you to look at it, that’s all. Or call in a psychologist to look at it.”

“What would a psychologist want with a play-room?”

“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife was standing in the middle of the kitchen watching the stove busily making dinner for four.

“It’s just that it is different now than it was.”

“All right, let’s have a look.”

They walked down the hall of their HappyLife Home. It had cost them thirty thousand dollars and was designed to do almost everything for them. It clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and was good to them in many other ways. Hidden switches turned the hall lights on and off as they walked along. When they were ten feet from the play-room door, its light turned on.

“Well,” said George Hadley. They stood on the grass-like floor of the play-room. It was fifteen meters across by fifteen meters long and ten meters high. It had cost half as much as the rest of the house. “But nothing’s too good for our children,” George had said.

The room was silent and empty. At first the walls were white and looked normal. Now, they began to make a quiet noise and seemed to fall away into the distance. Soon an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in color. It looked real to the smallest stone and bit of yellow summer grass. The ceiling above them became a deep blue sky with a hot yellow sun.

George Hadley started to sweat from the heat. “Let’s get out of this sun,” he said. “This is a little too real. But I don’t see anything wrong.”

“Wait a moment, you’ll see,” said his wife.

Now hidden machines were beginning to blow a wind containing prepared smells toward them. The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the strong dried blood smell of the animals, the spicy smell of dust in the hot air. And now the noises: the sound of distant animal feet on the soft grassy ground, the papery sound of vulture wings. A shadow passed through the sky and George Hadley looked up. As he watched, the shadow moved across his sweating face. “Horrible things,” he heard his wife say.

“The vultures.”

“You see, there are the lions, far over, that way. Now they’re on their way to the water hole. They’ve just been eating,” said Lydia. “I don’t know what.”

“Some animal.” George Hadley put his hand above his eyes to see better in the burning light and looked carefully. “A zebra or a baby giraffe, maybe.”

“Are you sure?” His wife sounded strangely worried.

“No, it’s a little late to be sure,” he said with a laugh. “It looks like the lions have eaten all of whatever it was. The vultures are dropping for what’s left.”

“Did you bear that scream?” she asked.

“No.”

“About a minute ago?”

“Sorry, no.”

The lions were coming.

George Hadley could not help thinking about how clever the men must have been who designed this room. A wonder of modern science selling for an unbelievably low price. Every home should have one. Oh, sometimes they frightened you with how real they seemed. They made you jump, gave you a scare. But most of the time they were fun for everyone. They were not designed only children. They were good for you when you felt like a quick trip to a foreign land to see and experience something different. Well, here it was!

And here were the lions now, five meters away. They looked so real and so powerful that you could feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Your mouth was filled with the dusty smell of their heated skin. The yellow of the lions and the summer grass was in your eyes like a brightly colored picture in a magazine. And there was the sound of the lions quick, heavy breaths in the silent mid-day sun, and the smell of meat from their watery mouths.

The lions stood looking at George and Lydia Hadley with terrible green-yellow eyes. “Watch out!” screamed Lydia.

The lions came running at them. Lydia turned suddenly and ran. Without thinking, George ran after her. Outside in the hall, after they had closed the door quickly and noisily behind them, he was laughing and she was crying. And they both stood surprised at what the other was doing.

“George!”

“Lydia! Oh, my dear poor sweet Lydia!”

“They almost got us!”

“Walls, Lydia, remember; glass walls, that’s all they are. Oh, they look real, I’ll agree with you there – Africa in your living room. But it’s all created from three dimensional color film behind glass screens. And the machines that provide the smells and sounds to go with the images. Here’s my handkerchief.”

“I’m scared.” She came to him and put her body against him and cried as he held her. “Did you see? Did you feel? It’s too real.”

“Now, Lydia…”

“You’ve got to tell Wendy and Peter not to read any more on Africa.”

“Of course – of course.” He patted her.

“Promise?”

“Sure.”

“And lock the play-room for a few days until I can get over this.”

“You know how difficult Peter is about that. Remember how angry he got a month ago when I locked it for just a few hours? And Wendy too. They live for the play-room.”

“It’s got to be locked, that’s all there is to it.”

“All right.” Although he wasn’t happy about it, he locked the huge door. “You’ve been working too hard. You need a rest.”

“I don’t know – I don’t know,” she said, blowing her nose, sitting down in a chair that began to rock and comfort her. “Maybe I don’t have enough to do. Maybe I have time to think too much. Why don’t we shut the whole house off for a few days?”

“You mean you want to fry my eggs for me?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And fix holes in my socks?”

“Yes!” She said again excitedly, with tears in her eyes.

“And clean the house?”

“Yes, yes – oh, yes!”

“But I thought that’s why we bought this house, so we wouldn’t have to do anything?”

“That’s just it. I feel like I’m not needed here. The house is wife and mother now, and nurse for the children. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and clean the children as well or quickly as the body washer can? I cannot. And it isn’t just me. It’s you. You’ve been very nervous lately.”

“Perhaps I have been smoking too much.”

“You look as if you didn’t know what to do with yourself in this house, either. You smoke a little more every morning and drink a little more every afternoon, and you are taking more pills to help you sleep at night. You’re beginning to feel as if you are not needed too.”

“Am I?” He thought for a moment as he and tried to feel into himself to see what was really there.

“Oh, George!” She looked past him, at the play-room door. “Those lions can’t get out of there, can they?”

He looked at the door and saw it move as if something had jumped against it from the other side.

“Of course not,” he said.

At dinner they ate alone. Wendy and Peter were at a special plastic fair across town. They had called home earlier to say they’d be late. So George Hadley sat, deep in thought, watching the table in front of them produce warm dishes of food from the machines inside.

“We forgot the tomato sauce,” he said.

“Sorry,” said a small voice from inside the table, and tomato sauce appeared.

As for the play-room, thought George Hadley, it won’t hurt for the children to be locked out of it a while. Too much of anything isn’t good for anyone. And it is easy to see that the children had been spending a little too much time on Africa. That sun. He could still feel it on his neck. And the lions. And the smell of blood.

It was hard to believe how the play-room could read the thoughts in the children’s minds and create life to fill their every wish. The children thought lions, and there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sun – sun. Giraffes – giraffes. Death and death.

That last. He ate the meat that the table had cut for him without tasting it. Death thoughts. They were too young, Wendy and Peter, for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really. Long before you knew what death was you were wishing it on someone else. When you were two years old you were shooting people with toy guns.

But this – the long, hot African veldt. The terrible death in the mouth of a lion, watched over and over again.

“Where are you going?”

George didn’t answer Lydia. He was too busy thinking of something else. He let the lights shine softly in front of him and turn off behind him as he walked quietly to the play-room door. He listened against it. Far away, a lion roared. He unlocked the door and opened it. Just before he stepped inside, he heard a faraway scream. And then another roar from the lions, which died down quickly. He stepped into Africa.

How many times in the last year had he opened this door and found old fashioned children’s stories. All the most enjoyable creations of an imaginary world.

But now, it is yellow hot Africa, with death in the heat. Perhaps Lydia was right. Perhaps they needed a little time away from this thing they had created in their mind. It was growing a bit too real for ten-year-old children. It was all right to exercise one’s mind with unusual dreams, but when the lively child mind becomes fixed on one pattern…?

It seemed that, at a distance, for the past month, he had heard lions roaring. He had also noticed their strong smell which carried as far away as his study door. But, being busy, he had not thought very much about it.

George Hadley stood on the African veldt alone. The lions looked up from their feeding, watching him. The only thing wrong with the image was the open door. Through it he could see his wife, far down the dark hall. She was still eating her dinner, but her mind was clearly on other things.

“Go away,” he said to the lions.

They did not go. He knew how the room should work. You sent out your thoughts. Whatever you thought would appear. “Let’s have Aladdin and his lamp,” he said angrily. The veldt remained; the lions remained.

“Come on, room! I want Aladdin!” he said.

Nothing happened. The lions made soft low noises in the hot sun.

“Aladdin!”

He went back to dinner. “The fool room’s out of order,” he said. “It won’t change.”

“Or…”

“Or what?”

“Or it can’t change,” said Lydia. “Perhaps the children have thought about Africa and lions and killing so many days that the room’s stuck in a pattern it can’t get out of.”

“Could be.”

“Or Peter’s set it to remain that way.”

“Set it?”

“He may have got into the machinery and fixed something.”

“Peter doesn’t know machinery.”

“You know that he’s very clever for ten.”

“But…”

“Hello, Mom. Hello, Dad.”

The Hadleys turned. Wendy and Peter were coming happily in the front door.

“You’re just in time for dinner,” said both parents.

“We’re full of ice-cream and hot dogs,” said the children, holding hands. “But we’ll sit and watch.”

“Yes, come tell us about the play-room,” said George Hadley.

The brother and sister looked at him and then at each other. “play-room?” they said.

“All about Africa and everything,” said the father with a false smile.

“I don’t understand,” said Peter.

“Your mother and I were just traveling through Africa.

“There’s no Africa in the play-room,” said Peter simply.

“Oh, come now, Peter. We know better.”

“I don’t remember any Africa,” said Peter to Wendy. “Do you?”

“No.”

“Run see and come tell.”

She did as he told her.

“Wendy, come back here!” said George Hadley, but she was gone. The house lights followed her. Too late, he remembered he had forgotten to lock the play-room door after his last visit.

“Wendy’ll look and come tell us,” said Peter.

“She doesn’t have to tell me. I’ve seen it.”

“I’m sure you’re wrong, Father.”

“I’m not, Peter. Come along now.”

But Wendy was back. “It’s not Africa,” she said.

“We’ll see about this,” said George Hadley, and they all walked down the hall together and opened the door.

There was a green, lovely forest, a lovely river, a purple mountain, high voices singing. And there was Rima the lovely bird girl. She was hiding in the trees with colorful butterflies, like flowers coming to life, flying about her long hair. The African veldt was gone. The lions were gone. Only Rima was here now, singing a song so beautiful that it brought tears to your eyes.

George Hadley looked in at the changed scene. “Go to bed,” he said to the children.

They opened their mouths.

“You heard me,” he said.

They went off to the air tube, where a wind blew them like brown leaves up to their sleeping rooms.

George Hadley walked through the forest scene and picked up something that lay in the corner near where the lions had been. He walked slowly back to his wife.

“What is that?” she asked.

“An old wallet of mine,” he said. He showed it to her. The smell of hot grass was on it… and the smell of a lion. It was wet from being in the lion’s mouth, there were tooth marks on it, and there was dried blood on both sides. He closed the door and locked it.

They went to up to bed but couldn’t sleep. “Do you think Wendy changed it?” she said at last, in the dark room.

“Of course.”

“Changed it from a veldt with lions into a forest with Rima?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. But it’s staying locked until I find out.”

“How did your wallet get there?”

“I don’t know anything,” he said. “Other than I’m beginning to be sorry we bought that room for the children. If children have any kind of emotional problem, a room like that…”

“It’s meant to help them work off their emotional problems in a healthy way.”

“I’m starting to wonder.” His eyes were wide open, looking up at the ceiling.

“We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted. Is this what they give us back – not telling us things, not doing what we tell them?”

“Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on sometimes?’ We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re unbearable – let’s accept it. They come and go when they like; they treat us as if we were the children in the family. They’re spoiled and we’re spoiled.”

“They’ve been acting funny ever since you wouldn’t let them go to New York a few months ago.”

“They’re not old enough to do that alone, I explained.”

“I know, but I’ve noticed they’ve been decidedly cool toward us since.”

“I think I’ll have David McClean come tomorrow morning to have a look at Africa.”

“But it’s not Africa now, it’s South America and Rima.”

“I have a feeling it’ll be Africa again before then.”

A moment later they heard the screams. Two screams. Two people screaming from downstairs. And then a roar of lions.

“Wendy and Peter aren’t in their rooms,” said his wife.

He lay in his bed with his beating heart. “No,” he said. “They’ve broken into the play-room.”

“Those screams – they sound familiar.”

“Do they?”

“Yes, terribly.”

And although their beds tried very hard, George and Lydia Hadley couldn’t be rocked to sleep for another hour. A smell of cats was in the night air.

* * *

“Father?” asked Peter the next morning.

“Yes.”

Peter looked at his shoes. He never looked at his father or mother any more. “You aren’t going to lock up the play-room for good, are you?”

“That’s up to you.”

“What do you mean?” said Peter sharply.

“If you and your sister break up this Africa with other places – oh, Sweden perhaps, or Denmark or China…”

“I thought we were free to play as we wished.”

“You are, as long as you don’t go too far with any one thing.”

“What’s wrong with Africa, Father?”

“Oh, so now you say that you have been thinking up Africa, do you?”

“I wouldn’t want the play-room locked up,” said Peter coldly. “Ever.”

“In fact, we’re thinking of turning the whole house off for about a month. Live sort of a happy family existence.”

“That sounds terrible! Does that mean I couldn’t use the machine to tie my shoes? And I would have to brush my own teeth and comb my hair and give myself a bath?”

“It would be fun for a change, don’t you think?”

No, it would be horrible. I didn’t like it when you took out the picture painter last month.”

“That’s because I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son.”

“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell; what else is there to do?”

“All right, go play in Africa.”

“Will you shut off the house sometime soon?”

“We’re thinking about it.”

“I don’t think you’d better think about it any more, Father.”

“I won’t have my son telling me what to do!”

“Very well.” And Peter walked off to the play-room.

* * *

“Am I on time?” said David McClean.

“Breakfast?” asked George Hadley.

“No thanks, had some. What’s the trouble?”

“David, you’re a psychologist.”

“I should hope so.”

“Well, then, have a look at our play-room. You saw it a year ago when you dropped by. Did you notice anything unusual about it then?”

“Can’t say I did. There was the usual anger. But this is normal in children because they feel their parents are always doing things to hurt them in one way or another. But, oh, really nothing.”

They walked down the hall. “I locked it up,” explained the father, “and the children broke back into it during the night. I let them stay so they could form the images for you to see.”

There was a terrible screaming from the play-room.

“There it is,” said George Hadley. “See what you make of it.”

They opened the door and walked in on the children. The screams had stopped. The lions were feeding.

“Run outside a moment, children,” said George Hadley. “No, don’t change the images. Leave the walls as they are. Get out!”

With the children gone, the two men stood studying the lions in the distance. They were sitting together, eating with great enjoyment whatever it was they had caught.

“I wish I knew what it was,” said George Hadley. “Sometimes I can almost see.”

David McClean turned to study all four walls. “How long has this been going on?”

“A little over a month.”

“It certainly doesn’t feel good.”

“I want facts, not feelings.”

“My dear George, a psychologist never saw a fact in his life. He only hears about feelings; things that aren’t always clearly said or seen. This doesn’t feel good, I tell you. Please believe me. I have a nose for anything bad. This is very bad. What I think you should do is have the whole room torn down and bring your children to me every day during the next year for treatment.”

“Is it that bad?”

“I’m sorry, but yes. One of the original uses of these rooms was so that we could study the patterns left on the walls by the child’s mind. We could study them whenever we wanted to, and help the child by making any bad thoughts go away. In this case, however, the room is somehow making the children’s bad thoughts even worse.”

“Didn’t you feel this before?”

“I felt only that you had spoiled your children more than most parents. And now you’re letting them down in some way. What way?”

“I wouldn’t let them go to New York.”

“What else?”

“I’ve taken a few machines from the house and said to them, a month ago, that I would close up the play-room unless they did their homework. I did close it for a few days to show I meant business.”

“Ah, ha!”

“Does that mean anything?”

“Everything. Where before they had a Santa Claus now they have someone who takes presents away. Children like Santa better. You’ve let this room and this house take the place of you and your wife in your children’s feelings. This room is their mother and father, far more important in their lives than their real parents. And now you come along and want to shut it off. No wonder there’s hatred here. You can feel it coming out of the sky. Feel that sun. George, you’ll have to change your life. Like too many others, you’ve built it around things to make you life easier. Why, you’d go hungry tomorrow if something went wrong in your kitchen. You wouldn’t know how to cook an egg. All the same, turn everything off. Start new. It’ll take time. But we’ll make good children out of bad in a year, wait and see.”

“But won’t that be too much for the children, shutting the room up without notice, for good?”

“I don’t want them going any deeper into this, that’s all.”

The lions were finished with their bloody meat. They were standing on the edge of the clearing watching the two men.

“Now I’m feeling worried,” said McClean. “Let’s get out of here. I never have cared for these rooms. They make me nervous.”

“The lions look real, don’t they?” said George Hadley. Do you think there’s any way…”

“What?”

“…that they could become real?”

“Not that I know.”

“Some problem with the machinery? Someone changing something inside?”

“No.”

They went to the door.

“I don’t imagine the room will like being turned off,” said the father.

“Nothing ever likes to die – even a room.”

“I wonder if it hates me for wanting to switch it off?”

“It seems that everyone is imagining enemies around here today,” said David McClean as he bent and picked up a bloody scarf. “Hello! This yours?”

“No.” George Hadley’s face set like stone. “It’s Lydia’s.”

They went to the control box together and threw the switch that killed the play-room.

The two children were so angry that they couldn’t control themselves. They screamed and danced around and threw things. They shouted and cried and called their parents rude names and jumped on the furniture.

“You can’t do that to the play-room, you can’t!”

“Now, children.”

The children threw themselves onto a sofa, crying.

“George,” said Lydia Hadley, “turn it on again, just for a few moments. You need to give them some more time.”

“No.”

“You can’t be so unkind…”

“Lydia, it’s off, and it stays off. And the whole house dies as of here and now. The more I see of the mess we’ve got ourselves into, the more it makes me angry. We’ve been thinking of our personal comforts for too long. It’s time for us to be honest with ourselves!”

And he walked quickly about the house turning off other things. He turned off the voice clocks, the stoves, the heaters, the shoe cleaners, the body washer, and every other machine he could put his hand to.

The house was silent. None of the soft sounds of machines waiting to work at the tap of a button.

“Don’t let them do it!” cried Peter to the ceiling, as if he was talking to the house, the play-room. “Don’t let Father kill everything.” He turned to his father. “Oh, I hate you!”

“Saying things like that won’t get you anywhere.”

“I wish you were dead!”

“We were, for a long while. We let our lives be handled and managed by this house. But not any more. Now, we’re going to start living.”

Wendy was still crying and Peter also began to cry again. “Just a moment, just one moment, just another moment of play-room,” they cried.

“Oh, George,” said the wife, “it can’t hurt.”

“All right – all right, if they’ll just shut up. One minute, mind you, then off. And it will never be turned on again.”

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” sang the children, smiling with wet faces.

“And then we’re going away for a while. David McClean is coming back in half an hour to help us move out and get to the airport. I’m going to dress. You turn the play-room on for a minute, Lydia, just a minute, mind you.”

And the three of them went off talking excitedly while he let himself be taken upstairs through the air tube and set about dressing himself. A minute later Lydia appeared.

“I’ll be happy when we get away,” she said thankfully.

“Did you leave them in the play-room?”

“I wanted to dress too. Oh, that horrible Africa. What can they see in it?”

“Well, in five minutes we’ll be on our way to Iowa. God, how did we let this happen? What made us buy this house?”

“Wanting to look good, money, foolishness.”

“I think we’d better get downstairs before the children spend too much time with those lions again.”

Just then they heard the children calling, “Daddy, Mommy, come quick – quick!”

They went downstairs in the air tube and ran down the hall. They could not see the children anywhere. “Wendy? Peter!”

They ran into the play-room. The veldt was empty save for the lions waiting, looking at them. “Peter, Wendy?”

The door closed loudly.

“Wendy, Peter!”

George Hadley and his wife turned quickly and ran back to the door.

“Open the door!” cried George Hadley, trying the handle. “Why, they’ve locked it from the outside! Peter!” He beat at the door. “Open up!”

He heard Peter’s voice outside, against the door.

“Don’t let them switch off the play-room and the house,” he was saying.

Mr and Mrs George Hadley beat at the door. “Now, don’t be silly, children. It’s time to go. Mr McClean’ll be here in a minute and…”

And then they heard the sounds.

The lions were on three sides of them in the yellow veldt grass. They walked quietly through the dry grass, making long, deep rolling sounds as they came. The lions!

Mr Hadley looked at his wife and they turned and looked back at the lions moving slowly towards them, knees bent, tails in the air.

Mr and Mrs Hadley screamed.

And suddenly they understood why those other screams had sounded familiar.

* * *

“Well, here I am,” said David McClean from the play-room door. “Oh, hello.” He looked carefully at the two children seated in the center of the room eating a little picnic lunch. On the far them he could see the water hole and the yellow veldt. Above was the hot sun. He began to sweat. “Where are your father and mother?”

The children looked up and smiled. “Oh, they’ll be here directly.”

“Good, we must get going.”

At a distance Mr McClean saw the lions fighting over something and then quietening down to feed under the coolness of the trees. He put his hand above his eyes to see better in the strong sunlight and looked at them. Now the lions were done feeding. They moved to the water hole to drink. A shadow moved over Mr McClean’s hot face. Many shadows moved. The vultures were dropping down from the burning sky.

“A cup of tea?” asked Wendy in the silence.