Spent Shells

Submitted into Contest #60 in response to: Write a post-apocalyptic thriller.... view prompt


Science Fiction Thriller

I close my eyes and try to slow my heart rate, like I read the snipers used to do in war. Still do, maybe, if there’s anyone out there fighting… Focus, damnit. My hands keep shaking, so I steady my forearms on an unbroken stretch of fence. Bullets are nearly as scarce as food, and I think I’m on my last shot. I can’t remember how to open the damn gun to check. I focus my eyes on my target in front of me. The peacock takes a few cautious steps forward, pecking at little little specks of dirt and grass peeking up through the gravel path. His long tail drags noisily behind him. I close my left eye and hold my breath as I look down the barrel at his head. He hasn’t noticed me. My stomach grumbles, protesting the random assortment of leaves I’ve eaten no doubt, and the peacock’s head twitches.

I fire, a big booming shot that still scares me despite this being my fifth attempt. And like my first four, it’s gone wide, and a spray of gravel kicks up into the air. Just as quick, the peacock jumps back, beats its heavy wings, and takes off into the air, flying up and over the nearby cage wall. 

They can fly? 

I pocket the gun - it’s a tiny, toy-looking thing -  and hope I put the safety on properly. Although that would be a fitting way for me to go, wouldn’t it? Surviving all that just to literally shoot myself in the foot.

The ringing in my ears from the shot reminds me that I’ve got to move. Who knows who heard that. I scan the sky to see if any of them are near, but see only a few wisps of clouds. I continue down the path, so exhausted I can barely lift my feet off the ground. Half my steps scuff the gravel, no doubt alerting whatever animal I might have a chance at finding. Watch the mighty warrior stalk his prey.

It was stupid idea to come here, but I’m ashamed to say it’s the best I had. When the grocery stores emptied out, and all the restaurants and gas stations had been looted, where else was there to go? Where was the food? Two days past I’d found myself staring at the ceiling, listening as my stomach tied itself in tight angry knots, asking for more than petty leaves and grass. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know which plants were edible. The hunger at this point was a constant gnaw, a spectre who loomed over my shoulder at all times. When I looked in the mirror I could see him, in my hollow cheeks and sunken eyes.

Where can we get meat? My stomach asked. 

The zoo. That’s the best I could come up with. That doesn’t bode well for me. When tasked with finding an animal with which to feed myself, the best I could come up with is the zoo. I know, intellectually at least, that there are still animals out there. Out in the wild. The ships that came from the sky didn’t come for them, they came for us. Cities first, cratering the major ones and then hunting down the stragglers. Regardless, I know about as much about finding a wild animal as I do using this gun. Less, probably. So now I’m here, City Boy, at the goddamn zoo, trading bullets for the knowledge that peacocks can fly.

Doesn’t seem like I’m the first person with this dumb idea though. All of the little shops and restaurants have been broken into and ransacked. Benches and lampposts have been smashed and tipped over. When I first used to see this kind of destruction, I never understood it. What did the bench have to do with any of this? But eventually I came to understand. Sometimes a bench seems cocky. A street lamp looks at you the wrong way. Suddenly these things remind you of a different time, and their arrogance infuriates you. The audacity of a bench, sometimes.

Ahead of me, I can see a small statue. As I get closer I realize it is a man’s head and shoulders: the zoo’s first curator. He looks to be an old man, with carved curly hair and a set of stone glasses. The head is a white stone, dirty now with no one to clean it. It sits on a narrow wooden plinth. I’m surprised it lasted this long, quite frankly. I put my hands on either side of his head, clasping his ears, and bring my forehead close to his before shoving hard. It’s lighter than I expected and the head soars down the path, landing with a crash that sends fragments and white dust in all directions, confirming my suspicions. Hollow.

More importantly, some of the cages have been broken into as well. All the ones I’d hoped to find occupied have been taken. Horses, buffalo, even small ones like the okapi. Anything I’d figured was edible was gone. I did find the remains of a warthog, but it had been mostly eaten long enough ago that even my starved stomach turned at the sight of it, covered in flies. After I pass another row of empty enclosures, I begin to grow frustrated that there will be anything left. Unsure of where to go next, I approach a nearby map of the zoo. As I begin to scan, looking for anything which might be edible, I hear a noise approaching from the path to my left. I dart away from the map and through an opening in a nearby enclosure, crouching down inside a bush that lines the front of the cage.

I peer out through the bushes, and at first I see nothing. Perhaps I’d imagined the noise. Or it was the peacock, come to enact his revenge. I am getting ready to stand when I see a massive, clawed paw set gently down on the gravel path. A tiger. Muscles ripple under its striped coat as it slinks forward, its torso pulled low to the ground. It takes another step, peeling each immense paw noiselessly from the ground before painting it gently back on. As it shifts its weight, I glimpse its claws, hooked like scimitars. Through the bushes I peek up towards its face and see it tilt its nose up slightly, sniffing.

I know I must smell strongly, but I’ve been unwashed for so many months I don’t notice it anymore. I can see now that despite its heavily muscled shoulders, its skin sticks close to its ribs and its stomach is tight. The tiger lets off a low rumble, as if it radiates a wild energy. I can hear its inhales sharpen, each sniff deeper than the last, as it undoubtedly picks up on my scent. Another paw peels itself off the ground and paints itself closer to me. My nose prickles against a heavy, feral musk. As quietly as I can, I reach into my pocket and begin to pull out my gun, not to fight, that would be futile. We aren’t the apex anymore. Instead, I wonder whether it will scare the beast long enough to let me run away.

Before I have a chance to fully draw my gun, a high-pitched whine fills the air. The whine rises, a high screech that sets my teeth vibrating. With it comes a light, rising bright white just moments behind the sound until it flashes, blinding me. I blink and rub at my eyes as my vision twinkles back, my ears still ringing from the sound. I grip the fence for stability and through the bars I see the tiger standing, as if ready to pounce at me still. I look closer, and I see its body is unnaturally still, all except for its eyes which move with a frantic intensity, pupils dilated. A soft purple-blue fire spreads across its fur, but it seems unharmed. Behind, in the distance, I can see two of the creatures from the news approaching. The ones from space.

They float towards the frozen tiger. Two orbs, each only three feet across, suspended in the air via some force we never had the opportunity to understand. The exterior of the orbs is a dull, bronze looking metal covered in small ports, openings, and whirring mechanical devices which extend and retract, to what stimulus I don’t know. Each orb has its own viewing window, a circular porthole into its centre, and the porthole seems to be able to move freely around the orb, as the structure’s mechanical components rearrange themselves to allow space for the window. Briefly, I catch glimpses of the creatures inside. I see what might be an eye, maybe a mouth. The bodies inside seem to twist and rearrange themselves the same as their ships. My stomach turns, and it isn’t from hunger.

The two orbs circle the frozen tiger. I can hear noises emanating from the orbs, like water gurgling down a drain, and they each emit flurried flashes of lights across the surfaces of their orbs. They seem occupied by the tiger. I reach slowly back down to my pocket and draw my gun. 

Please, let there be one more shot.

I move to aim, as slow and quiet as I can. The porthole windows whirl around the floating orbs and I don’t think I have a shot, until one descends slowly to hover just in front of the tiger’s frozen visage. The porthole stays fixed as the undulating creature inside pushes itself against the glass. I know I won’t get another chance.

I pull the trigger and find there is one more bullet.

The gun fires and I know my aim is true this time. And yet, just as I squeeze, I see the creature orient towards me and the porthole spins away. My bullet ricochets off the metal hull and the orb flies up and back several feet. The tiger’s body jolts, and under the fire I can see blood trickle down its chest. With nothing left to do I throw the gun at the remaining orb, push back through the gap in the fence, and sprint down the path. I look back and see the first orb, the one I shot, lift up some fifteen feet into the air and begin following me down the path as the second hovers close to the tiger, whirring loudly. Just as I round the corner I look back and I see the tiger begin to stretch its legs and yawn.

My heart pounds as I run, dust and dirt kicking up behind me. Already I can feel a stitch building in my ribs. My adrenaline is pumping, screaming at my legs to move, but the weeks and months of hunger weigh them down. I check behind and see the orb keeping pace behind me. I can’t keep this up. To my left I see a building so I turn sharply and burst through the doors. It is black as night inside and I’m instantly blinded. I pause, back against the door, chest heaving, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the low light. Finally I can begin to make out bits of the hallway and a sign in front of me. Reptile House.

I grab a nearby chair and jam it as best I can in front of the door. If that thing wanted inside, it probably could have done so already, and I doubt a chair’s going to stop it anyway, but it can’t hurt. I begin to creep forward, my eyes still trying to decipher the darkness. I feel the crunch of broken glass underfoot. The glass cabinet beside me has been smashed open and a sign reading “Boa Constrictor” hangs at an oblique angle. Great. I hope that’s from another looter. I don’t even know if snakes are edible. Kill it anyway, call it reparations for what happened in the garden. Maybe then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

My eyes are better now. I move further into the dark, stepping gingerly across more broken glass. Some cabinets are unbroken and I rush to them, my stomach twisting at the memory of my original purpose for coming here. Along the wall I see faintly painted sketches and I realize I’m looking at a wall of tarantulas, cockroaches. The paint overtop says “Creepy Crawlies”. Fitting that they would be left here, to outlive us. Hungry as I may be, I can’t stomach the idea of eating those.

Gliding my hand along the glass I push further to the biggest unbroken exhibit I’ve seen yet. I peer inside and at first I can’t see besides moss, stones, and logs. I am just about to move on when I see one stone in the back of the exhibit, smoother and more perfect than the rest. A turtle, tucked fully into his shell. He doesn’t move. Is he still alive? How long can turtles survive without food?

When I was younger, I went to a camp at a zoo like this one. They’d take us kids into a classroom and show us all sorts of animals, tell us what they were like, whether they were endangered. I remember one day they showed us a hermit crab, passing it around the room. I remember how its feet pinched at my hand as it stepped across my palm. The teacher told us how as hermit crabs age they will start to outgrow their shells. When that happens, they need to abandon their shells, running naked in the water until they find a new shell that fits them better. How they will find the shell which suits them best, whether it be a discarded snail’s shell, or a piece of garbage left on the beach. 

Then she brought out a turtle, a big ugly thing that we weren’t allowed to touch. She told us that turtles were different. Whereas hermit crabs live in their shells, turtles are their shells. The shell is an extension of their skeleton. A hardened defense that they must carry everywhere. She told us not to believe the cartoons, where we might see a turtle flee its shell and run around naked like a crab. You can’t remove a turtle from its shell. A turtle, separated from its shell, will die.

Looking now at the turtle’s tight dome, stashed away here in one of the last vestiges of human civilization, I can’t help but wonder. Which are we? Are we hermit crabs, free to try to find another shell if we find ours doesn’t fit us any longer? Or are we turtles, tied inexorably to our shells? I think it is the latter. We are our shells.

I go back to the front door, grab the chair from where it still sits barricading the front door, and walk back to the turtle. Firmly gripping the back, I line up the legs against the glass and swing. It takes several hits, and my weak arms quiver with each impact, but finally the glass breaks with a dull shatter. I reach in, careful not to cut my arms on the broken glass, and lift the turtle from where he sits. I lift the turtle in front of me and now I can see that he is alive. He slowly pokes his nose just out of his shell and his legs give small wiggles.

From outside I can hear the muffled whine of the orb. Maybe it has forgotten about me? I can’t see any exit other than the one I’ve come through, now unblocked. But I’m so tired. I can’t keep running. Not today. Cradling the turtle in one arm, I sweep the broken glass out of his enclosure and climb inside. I lay down on the mossy stone and I feel like the darkness lay over me like a blanket. I set the turtle down facing me. My stomach contorts, but I can’t bring myself to eat him. Not yet at least. With my back to the rear of the enclosure, I feel safe. Perhaps they will not find me here. I close my eyes. Sleep comes to me quickly.

September 25, 2020 03:32

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Jessica C
01:37 Oct 01, 2020

Hi, Kevin! We must have had the same idea, because I just noticed you stopped by my story as I was reading yours. I'm honestly not even sure how to critique this story. I've tried several times, but the narrative of building tension keeps pulling me in to the point I forget to read with a critical eye. Forgive me for using such a generic adjective here, but this is a great story. I mean, it's really, really great, man. Here are a few teensy, nitpicky things I caught: "pecking at little little specks of dirt" -is this a typo, or...


Kevin Leonard
15:14 Oct 01, 2020

Hi Jessica, Thanks so much for your feedback, it is incredibly helpful. Yes, that is absolutely a typo (a tricky one to catch). And the advice about passivity is helpful, and now that you point it out I can definitely see how it would pull you out of the story. Also I really appreciate that you picked out those three sentences, as they were my own favourite within the story. That gives me some confidence in my ability to assess my own work.


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