Read After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) Online

Authors: Scott Nicholson

Tags: #science fiction, #military, #horror, #action, #post-apocalyptic, #dystopian

After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) (10 page)

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

 

Stephen studied the map, and then looked at the road sign again.

How can this road be both U.S. 321 and N.C. 105 at the same time? And a sign back there said “Blackberry Road.” How did people with cars ever figure out where the heck they were going?

But he felt pretty good about knowing his location. The smoke helped, because DeVontay and Lt. Hilyard had pointed out the little towns below from up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fires from last night had definitely been Newton, because he’d seen them through the binoculars, and Newton was pretty much the biggest town in this part of North Carolina. According to the map, U.S. 321 cut a line right through it and kept on grooving south all the way to Charlotte.

Let’s just not think about N.C. 105 and Elk Park and Cross Creek and Haasdale. And wherever Blackberry Road goes.

Rachel and DeVontay had taught him well, so he had little trouble traveling alone, especially with no Zapheads in sight. He preferred sticking to the open road to make better time, plus he liked the idea of being able to outrun anything that threatened him. A wild dog a couple of miles back growled at him, but Stephen stood his ground and shook his walking stick until it slunk back into the forest.

The route offered plenty of houses for food and shelter, and he was pretty good at smelling out which ones held dead bodies. He scavenged plenty of peanut butter and applesauce, and at a roadside gas station he got lucky and scored a box of Slim Jims. And since no grown-ups were around to stop him, he helped himself to Snickers bars, gummy bears, moon pies, and cans of Sprite. He’d carried a dull ache in his stomach all day, but the indigestion was worth it.

At night he holed up in the most secure room in whichever house looked the safest, settling down in plenty of time to search the house before dark. Even though he’d found plenty of candles and matches, he didn’t dare risk a light. However, in one bedroom he’d found a pack of cigarettes and couldn’t resist trying one. Two puffs and his throat burned, and he spent half the night coughing.

Another bedroom featured a stack of magazines featuring naked women, and he flipped through one, feeling icky and excited at the same time. He put it down halfway through, heart pounding. But when the shame subsided, he retrieved several of the magazines and carefully studied them until darkness fell. By the time he awoke, he was feeling much older than ten-and-a-half.

He wasn’t even scared—well, not
much
—about being alone. If he met any other survivors, he’d see if they wanted to come along with him. If they turned out to be psychos or soldiers, he’d just politely go on about his business, ready to run if necessary. But so far the woods and back roads had been quiet, with only some livestock on the farms and squawking crows overhead to break the peace.

Stephen estimated Newton was still two miles away when the first business development appeared. It was a little strip mall of a few specialty shops, a dentist’s office, and a store plastered with colorful Spanish signs and advertising. The parking lot featured a dozen or so cars, and some of them looked to have moldering shapes in the front seat, but he didn’t look too closely. He didn’t see anything of interest and he already possessed plenty of food, so there was no reason to explore. But the last shop on the strip caught his eye: Heavenly Creatures Pets’n More.

The storefront window featured a cartoon cat that was portrayed as a winged angel, nine little halos rising above its pointy ears. Stephen wondered what had happened to the animals when the Zap hit. Did the owners have time to let them all out of their cages?

He figured most of them would be dead, little more than husks of fur and feathers, the fish already congealed into scum floating on top of the tanks. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see that. Bad enough to see rotten people, but he was kind of used to that by now.

Still, he couldn’t resist looking through the window.

The morning sun slanted into the shop just enough to allow him a full view of the small shop. Bird cages were stacked in the front window, newspaper lining their wire bottoms. The aquariums were in the rear of the store, the water thick and green. A series of dark-glassed cages stood along the far wall, evidently for exotic pets like reptiles and rodents. Aside from the shelves of rubber bones, squeak toys, bird seed, and shampoos, there were only a few kennels for dogs and cats.

He was relieved to see the bird cages were all empty, although he thought it odd that their doors were closed. Who would take the time to latch them after freeing their occupants?

Most pet stores he’d been in featured garish parrots that perched on wooden sticks, left out in the open to roam free because their wings were clipped. Some of them talked with startling clarity, although they usually repeated the same phrases over and over, occasionally imitating environmental sounds such as ringing cash registers and telephones.

He’d asked his mother for one as a birthday present, but when she’d checked the price tag and saw it was more than a thousand dollars, she’d brushed it aside as a foolish impulse.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there’s a parrot in here? Looks like plenty of food and water to scrounge, so it would have no problem surviving for months.

Stephen could perch it on his shoulder as if he were a pirate and have some company for the road. He could teach it the names of his favorite Marvel Comics superheroes and maybe even Beatles songs like the ones Rachel sang to him.

A parrot singing “Blackbird.” That would be so awesome!

He was eager to get to Newton and find Rachel—and he was positive DeVontay had gone looking for her, too—but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He promised himself that he’d just peek inside, and if it smelled like dead rodents, he was out of there.

The door was unlocked, which wasn’t much of a surprise. The sales counter was a glass display case that held a lot of trophies with dogs and cats on them. The countertop was bare aside from a plastic doggie bank bearing a handwritten sign that said “Please support the local Humane Society.” The air was stale and held the smell of wet fur and urine, but it wasn’t overpowering. The store clerks must have turned out all the animals before they left that August day when things went bad.

He glanced around, figuring any abandoned parrots would be hopping around the upper shelves or perching atop the cages. He called out “Polly want a cracker?” because apparently that was the first line any talking bird learned. Plus he would have felt silly asking, “Any birds in here?”

He was about ready to return to the welcoming sunshine when something squawked at the rear of the store. A flutter was reflected in the round surveillance mirror hanging in one corner.

He tiptoed a few feet deeper into the store, between the aisles of flea powders, pet vitamins, collars, and those silly little vests that rich old women put on their poodles. “Birdie birdie birdie?” he cooed.

Wings flapped, and the bird emerged from the shadows. Its wing feathers must have grown out over time, because it flew with a wobbly grace, habituated to its constricted flight path. It was dark gray instead of brilliant red and green, but its hooked beak was unmistakable.

“Parrot!” Stephen shouted with delight.

“Parrot,” the bird echoed, alighting on the rim of a metal sign that read FERRET XING. “African grey parrot.”

“Polly want a cracker?” Stephen took a slow step toward the bird.

“Cracker,” the bird squeaked.

Stephen dug into his satchel, looking for a snack the bird might like. The closest thing he could find to bird food was a tube of Pringles potato chips. He pulled out a few chips and squeezed them before scattering the crumbs on a top shelf. “Here’s some food,” Stephen offered, stepping back to marvel at the bird’s shiny feathers and round yellow irises.

The parrot lowered its beak to the crumbs but didn’t eat. It whistled and said, “Purty birdie.”

“Purty birdie!” Stephen repeated.

It’s talking to me!

“African grey all the way.” The bird emitted a shrill, very un-birdlike sound that was almost a scream. “African grey, African grey.”

“Hi, purty birdie, my name’s Stephen. I won’t hurt you.”


Urrr-AAAK
,” the bird squawked. “Muzzle that bad boy.”

The parrot must have picked up the phrase from clerks and customers. He’d heard that the smartest parrots could memorize hundreds of phrases, and some people believed they were capable of composing original sentences, although it was a stretch to assign any meaning to them.

Its wings fluttered and the bird skittered across the sign and hopped onto a shelf, where a ripped-open sack of cat food leaked a few brown chunks to the floor. The bird dipped into a tear in the sack. “Come and get it, purty birdie.”

It’s so awesome that he’s still alive after all this time.

But why had the store clerks freed all the other animals but not this one? Surely if they had taken the time to let out the animals one by one, they would have shooed the parrot outside as well. Especially since they probably had some sort of friendship with the bird because of its gift of speech.

Stephen took a few steps closer, wondering how he could convince the bird to come with him. Or should he just try to catch it? Maybe tie a string to one foot so it wouldn’t fly off until it got used to him.


Urrr-AAAK
,” the bird squawked again, followed by the avian shriek.

Something rustled in the lower shelves.

Probably mice or gerbils. If they let rodents out of their cages, they probably would scatter and hide. And even wild mice from outside might have moved into the store, where it was warm and food was plentiful. Heavenly Creatures was paradise for any rodent lucky enough to not be for sale.

Or to be reptile food
.

He’d seen a documentary on Discovery Channel about reptile care, and he’d been horrified to find out people bought shoeboxes full of mice to feed to their snakes.

Snakes.

Which are sold in pet stores
.

“Stay high if you don’t want to die,” the parrot said.

Stephen wondered where the parrot had learned that particular rhyme. But the thought of snakes made him look to the dark glass cages. Those cages looked big.

Really big.

He decided he didn’t need a parrot after all. It felt a little weird to just stroll out after sort of making friends, so Stephen said, “Come up front and I’ll let you out,” which was probably far too complex an idea for an animal that mostly just mimicked sounds.

“Stay high if you don’t want to die.
Urrr-AAAK
.”

The bird flapped in a burst of agitation and lifted to the ceiling, squawking and flying in circles.

Gee, purty birdie, what’s got your tail feathers in a twist? This isn’t the jungle—

The scuffing sound was like a garbage bag full of wet laundry being dragged across a concrete floor.

Stephen turned and found the exit blocked by a splotchy coil that looked like a shiny length of rope.

A really fat rope.

Covered with rough little scales.

Then the rope moved and reared its head.

And kept rearing.

Until the head was a good three feet off the ground, nearly eye level with Stephen.

And the python’s cold eyes glittered with the mad fire of mutation.

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

 

Stephen’s throat constricted as if the snake was already wrapped around it.

He couldn’t see its full length, as its tail was somewhere out of sight down the next aisle, but he saw enough to realize it could probably wrap around a Volkswagen Beetle and have plenty to spare.

And Stephen was much smaller than a Beetle.

The sleek animal’s body was as big around as a dryer hose, but the neck was thin and there were several bulges in the belly larger than a basketball.
Dog-sized bulges
, he couldn’t help thinking.

The python had yellow and green swirls in its black skin. But it was the narrow, blunt head that Stephen couldn’t look away from, and the pointy ribbon of black tongue slithering in and out.

And those eyes, which would have been bad enough just black and slitted. But with that flickering gleam…

Zaphead snake
.

“Stay high if you don’t want to die,” the parrot squawked, still in a holding pattern overhead.

Stephen’s walking stick leaned by the counter where he’d left it. He held his backpack in front of him like some sort of offering. Maybe the snake would prefer canvas and vinyl over warm, throbbing boy.

Despite his phobia, he’d watched plenty of snake programs on Discovery Channel and YouTube. After all, that was safe. The snakes couldn’t get him from the other side of the glass, and he could click them out of existence any time he wanted.

But he couldn’t help hearing a mellifluous announcer’s urgent voice-over in his head: “
The Burmese python has been known to grow over thirty feet in length, and though it prefers small rodents and reptiles, it will eat a variety of warm-blooded animals when opportunity strikes. Its hinged jaw can open to three times its usual size to allow it to swallow wild pigs, fawns, and ten-year-old boys…

The snake undulated and wriggled forward, seeming to curl around him from both sides at the same time. Stephen realized he’d been holding his breath, perhaps in anticipation of the suffocation to come.

Worse, he couldn’t move.

He just held the stupid backpack in front of him.

If DeVontay could see you now, he’d be ticked off. Some Little Man you are.

“Purty birdie.” The parrot landed on the sign again. “Stay high if you don’t want to die.”

Easy for you to say. You’re six feet off the ground. I don’t see why he doesn’t go after you instead. Bet you taste like chicken.

But maybe the bird was smarter than Stephen had given it credit for. Maybe it wasn’t just repeating some line picked up from the clerks or customers. Maybe it was articulating an original thought, a downright
philosophy
.

Words to live by.

“Stay high,” Stephen whispered.

The snake had somehow dragged its tail around without Stephen even noticing—although now that he thought about it, that scuffing sound had been going on for what seemed like hours—and the tip of its tail brushed against the back of Stephen’s leg. Almost a caress, a teasing and playful brush before the game began.

This was a very strange time for it, but the gentle touch made him think of those naked women in the magazines and the bare skin they so eagerly and proudly showed the world. Or at least the photographer.

It also caused his heart to take several long, slow pumps as if unsure whether to continue sluicing warm, enticing blood through his veins or just shut down and be done with it.

“Stay high,” the parrot repeated.

“Got it,” Stephen said.

Just as the python wrapped a five-foot loop of reptilian muscle around him, Stephen flung the backpack at the python’s head with all his might. The snake writhed and twitched, probably more startled than hurt by the blow.

Stephen stepped out of the snake’s grip and scrambled up the nearest set of shelves, knocking cans, toys, and leashes to the floor. Luckily, the flimsy shelves held his weight, and he managed to roll onto the top shelf by the time the python recovered.

He was maybe six feet off the floor now, well within reach of the reptile. He didn’t want to look over the edge, but he had to know where the snake was.

The floor was bare except for the mess he’d made during his ascent. The snake might be anywhere—probably sliding up the shelves in the next aisle, ready to squirm over the top and open wide for dinner. Stephen weighed maybe eighty-five pounds, and after a meal like that, the python would likely drowse for weeks.

Which was good news for the parrot, maybe, but not so much for Stephen.

He ran his fingertips along the items around him, mind racing even as he strained his neck to peer down at the floor. Was there anything in a pet store that could serve as a weapon?

His hand bumped into something blunt and yielding, and he thought it was a one of those big chunks of twisted pigskin they sold as dog chews. A nice-sized one might be able to stun the snake with one good blow.’

He grabbed at it.

It flexed and wriggled under his fingers.

Snaaaake.

Stephen wasn’t sure how he ended up on top of the stack of bird cages—he certainly had no recollection of moving, but he was over here and the snake was over there. And the door wasn’t all that far away now.

But the stack of flimsy cages wobbled precariously, and if he toppled to the floor, he was done for. Either he’d crack his skull and lay there unconscious while the python conducted the long, slow dance that would maneuver Stephen into its belly, or he would break a bone and the snake would have to put forth the effort of coiling around him and squeezing the air out of his lungs.

Stephen noticed gaps in the wires, and now understood the python must have gone from cage to cage over time, forcing its way inside the tiny cells where the birds were serving their life sentences.

Just like with the parrot, there had been plenty of food here for it.

Stephen was grateful for the cold, because it made the snake more sluggish than usual. By rights it should have already been in hibernation, or whatever happened to cold-blooded creatures, but because it had mutated, Stephen couldn’t count on his Discovery Channel recollections to help him now.

“Purty birdie.” The parrot alighted on a fifty-gallon aquarium at the rear of the store, safely out of harm’s way for the moment.

“Yeah,” Stephen called. “Got any more bright ideas besides ‘Stay high’?”

The heroes in the action movies always joked during their close encounters of the fatal kind, and Stephen realized it was more than a simple act of entertainment. It actually boosted his confidence a little. Sure, the cockiness was fake, but wasn’t all bravery just a show? Only a fool wasn’t afraid of death.


Urrr-AAAAK
. Muzzle that bad boy.”

“Thanks a lot.”

The scuffing sound was combined with an abrasive whisper of snakeskin on metal, as if the snake was sneaking up on him using whatever concealment it could find.

Wait a sec. “Muzzle that bad boy.”

He’d assumed the bird had picked the line up from a dog trainer or frustrated pet owner. But what if the parrot was actually giving him some advice?

By the counter, a variety of both woven canvas and leather leashes hung from pegs in various lengths and thicknesses. Beside them hung a similar variety of dog muzzles, some looking soft and simple and others looking serious enough to starve Hannibal Lecter.

Okay. All I have to do is cross twenty feet of concrete jungle, pluck the biggest and baddest canine-restraint product on the market, yell “Sit, Fido,” and then wrap it around the python’s head, all while avoiding getting wrapped up like a Taco Bell cheese burrito at Fourthmeal. No problem.

“On the count of three,” he said aloud.

“Onetwothree,” the parrot clucked in rapid syllables, which was no help at all. “Onetwothree. Onetwothree.”

“Onetwothree,” Stephen said, dropping to the ground, landing on both feet with a hard slap of sneaker soles against hard tile. He sprinted to the far end of the counter, eyeing the door and wondering if maybe that was the better bet, but a slick log of snake flesh blocked the exit. He grabbed at the muzzles, pulling down one that featured wide straps and thick metal studs that looked like something a vicious pit bull would wear.

He grabbed a long leather leash for good measure, lashing it out before him like a whip. The snake slithered down the main aisle, bumping aside cans of dog food that rolled this way and that. Stephen wished he’d had time to do something clever like crawl into a metal trash can so the python couldn’t give him the death squeeze, but at least he had
something
.

As quick as the snake was moving, though, there was no way Stephen would be able to jam the muzzle on its head and clamp those scaly lips together for good. And the snake meant business this time.

It flexed much of its length around behind Stephen, preparing to entwine his limbs and pull him into the final hug. It wouldn’t need its mouth for the initial attack, but it couldn’t really maneuver without its head following.


Urrr-AAAAAAAAK
.” The parrot’s shriek was so piercing and sudden that it took Stephen a moment to realize the bird was no longer all the way across the room.

With a fierce flapping of wings, the parrot strafed the python, pecking awkwardly at its blunt head and eyes. Parrots weren’t birds of prey so they didn’t have the tearing beaks of hawks or eagles, but the bird managed to jab a small red hole between the beast’s nostrils.

The python momentarily turned its attention to the parrot, which flew to safety overhead, but Stephen took advantage of the opening and yanked the muzzle over the python’s head, twisted it as tightly as he could, and held on like a cowboy wrangling a calf to the dirt.

The serpent writhed and roiled, tossing Stephen back and forth. For a horrified moment, the long sinewy length of the snake rubbed across his back. This time he didn’t think of naked women. He thought about how stupid it would be to die in a pet store after surviving Doomsday, and how Rachel and DeVontay would never know what happened to him, and how by next year he’d be nothing more than a few clumps of snake turds drying to dust on the concrete.

The snake bucked and Stephen went up with it, riding a reptilian roller-coaster. Then it rolled over, slamming Stephen against the hard floor, but he kept his grip. He tugged one strap tight and slipped it under another, winching the muzzle into the snake’s head. Even if the python did manage to squeeze the life out of him, he wasn’t going to be eaten afterward.

“Muzzle that bad boy,” the bird said, and just as Stephen convinced himself the parrot was a supremely intelligent bird sent by God to save him—a heavenly creature, of all things—the parrot added, “Purty birdie want a cracker. Onetwothree onetwothree.”

The snake whipped its tail around, cracking the glass display case beneath the counter. A silvery shard protruded from the python, blood pulsing from the wound.

Stephen jerked the snake’s head to the floor and whipped the muzzle against the case. The glass broke into several large wedges, a couple of them falling to the concrete. The flailing tail swept some of the trophies to the floor. One was mounted with a brass hound dog with its nose in the air and a plaque reading “BEST IN SHOW.”

Stephen grabbed the trophy as the snake wriggled amid the broken glass. He grabbed the statue’s head and swung it down like a hammer, pounding on the snake’s neck. Something crunched beneath his blows, and the snake twisted all the harder.

Stephen pushed the snake’s neck to the ground, holding it in place with his knees, ignoring the tail whipping around him. He set the trophy on the floor, grabbed it by the base, and then drove the statue end directly between the snake’s eyes. The brass hound penetrated from nose to neck, and the python flopped against the floor like a dying fish.

Stephen scrambled past the reptile and raced to the door, collecting his walking stick on the way. The snake still wriggled, but the muzzle and trophy were still in place.

Stephen pushed his way outside, took a deep breath, and vomited. After he recovered, he spat a few times and blew the vomit-snot out of his nose. He peered through the front window and saw the snake’s struggles had eased a little, but it still looked lethal.

The parrot sat atop the cages, looking out at him through the window.

You saved my life. I owe you the same.

Keeping one eye on the snake, his stick at the ready in case he needed a weapon, he opened the door and held it wide.

“Purty birdie,” he called. “Here, purty birdie.”

The parrot ruffled its feathers a moment, looking around, and then flew straight out the door and landed in the parking lot. Stephen dragged a newspaper rack in front of the door to block it, his arms and legs still shaking from panic and exertion.

He was eager to put some distance between him and the snake, whether it was dying or not. Since it was a mutant, he had no way to know its powers.

The parrot flew into the air and circled him, as if uneasy about having so much sky overhead.

Stephen laughed, almost giddy with the sheer joy of being alive.

Plus he had a new friend.

“Purty birdie,” he said.

The parrot flapped its wings and headed south, but not before squawking a final “Stay high if you don’t want to die.”

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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