It's a tapestry of carnage as far as I can see, an experiment going terrible awry, the scourge of science. The rampant growth spreads through the town like cancer. It’s a colossal wall of unfettered vegetation rolling over houses and buildings as it heads inexorably toward me. Snarled up in its massive thicket are the bloody bodies of townsfolk that have been snared or speared by it. I can hear their bleating cries above the din as they flail in their feeble attempts to escape. I stand terrified at the demonic foliage that grows ever larger and pins me up against the door of the bank. Next to me is a girl caught in her own flight. In a flash, I abruptly grab the girl’s arm and fling us both inside the bank building, slamming the door shut on the deafening wail of the slaughter outside.
"We'll be safe here," I tell her as we enter the chilly silence of the commodious lobby.
"We will?" the girl scoffs incredulously.
The palatial lobby is ornately furnished with mahogany trim and a high ceiling crowned by a prism-shaped skylight with translucent etched-glass. The row of teller cages and the two bulky pedestal tables centered in the lobby stand abandoned now from the evacuation. A brightly painted mural depicting pioneers conducting their daily affairs runs atop the wainscot wall behind the empty desks of bank personnel. I pound my palms against the wall to test its sturdiness. The bank is an old building made of stone blocks. "They don't make them like this anymore," I assure the girl as I survey our temporary refuge.
"This is the craziest thing I've ever seen!" I whisper to myself in total disbelief as I stare at the door. "I remember my uncle brought home a large, sharp machete from his stay in the Brazilian jungles,” I say louder so the girl can hear though not addressing her directly. “He told me he used it to curve out paths in the jungle and building shelters…and for protection. I think he killed a man with it though he would never admit it. Funny, the jungle didn't seem that threatening and formidable back then when I listened to him. Maybe I was just kidding myself or simply naďve.”
I continue my reconnaissance of the parameter in silence then stop and scratch my head to figure a way out. “Sure could use that machete now," I conclude.
I stop at a locked fire cabinet on the wall. I shatter its glass front with my elbow and remove the axe that was stored inside. I go to the door of the bank and kneel down and chop off the tiny pea-yellow sprouts that are protruding in through the breach of the threshold. I stand and look at the door. "You know," I say as I turn and face the girl, "we’ll make it out okay. Help should be here soon, and this building is solid as a rock." I look up at the glass transom above the door as it darkens by creepy shadows of leafy vines that are crawling all over it.
The girl slides down the wall and squats with her forearms on her knees and her head resting on her forearms as though taking a siesta. She has long, wavy brown hair that is parted in the middle. She is quiet and still. There is a calmness emanating from her that makes the whole frenzy outside seem so remote. She senses me staring at her and looks up.
“What are you looking at?” she queries.
I shrug irresolutely and go over and slide down next to her to rest. I lay the axe up against the wall off to my side. "We're bound to be rescued," I reassure her to bolster her spirits, "I'm certain the lab has emergency plans for something like this. There should be helicopters overhead anytime now."
The girl is quiet and stares at the door that rattles and rumbles. She has a clean, fresh scent about her and wears a white smock and tight beige corduroy jeans that have been worn down in spots to a soft sheen. She has an oval face with brown eyes and brown brow and a pug nose. Her complexion is ruddy with peachy cheeks and accented by her fleshy lips.
"Don't worry, I'll get you out of here," I promise her. She turns her head and gazes at me with invoking eyes. She is such a frail and innocent creature, a living and breathing girl simply caught in this terrible situation. This shouldn’t be happening to her. What can I do? I need to find a way out for her.
"Gosh you're pretty!" I blurt out unexpectedly.
The girl tosses her head about skittishly then combs her hair back with her fingers and looks over straight at me with a probing and daring stare. “Am I pretty?” she coquettishly asks and then gently bites her lower lip.
"Yes, you're…you’re quite a pretty…lovely looking girl,” I answer haltingly. “I’m surprised…surprised I’ve never seen you before," I continue self-consciously, sensing she can somehow read my mind. I divert my eyes and look out at the lobby. "I'm not sure why I never noticed you before,” I continue. Are you new in town? Have we met before? You look familiar.”
The transom above the door explodes, strewing a shower of glass shards over the floor of the lobby. The loud boom startles the girl and she cowers up close to me. A huge, fibrous vine protrudes through the breach of the transom and plummets to the floor. We sit there clinging to each other astonished as we witness the greenery furiously unravels and consume the room. I pull her closer and for some reason begin stroking the flesh of her tummy with my fingers and then I gently kiss her temple to comfort her. She is warm and quiet as she anticipates my next kiss. I kiss the corner of her lips that twitch from my touch. We lock in an impassioned embrace that overwhelms all the cataclysmic commotion going on around us.
The horrific noise of the door as it creaks and wails jars us apart and we turn to watch the door blow off it hinges letting a thick branch to burst into the center of the lobby and rapidly unfurl. Splintered pieces of the door are embedded and dangle in the briary foliage.
The girl stands and strips in front of me as though oblivious to the destruction and urgency at hand. Her comely nudity waylays all my thoughts of escaping and in this crazy, crazy chaos I find myself hastily disrobing to join in the erotic folly of it all. It is as though she wants the whole damnation of the world to be damned by her own desires.
"We must hurry," she insists as she slithers down and straddles me and bends in to fondle and kiss my face. She sits up. Her face is like a flower with velvety petals radiating from it. She firmly draws her fingers down my chest, digging her fingernails into my flesh as she revels in her own deliverance.
The burgeoning vegetation surges across the lobby floor, smashing the two writing tables like flimsy wood crates, rolling them both up into the massive juggernaut. The reverberating ruckus of the destruction is deafening and its voracious growth is stifling. The skylight dislodges and falls down past the mural and shatters out on the floor. The bramble creeps and weaves in through every crack and opening of the lobby, entangling the pioneers of the mural and finally consuming the whole wall. The ceiling sags and begins to crumble overhead by the mounting weight and the light in the room is being blocked out and dimness falls over us.
"So, you’re my hero?" she asks.
We roll over with me on top. It is as though the whole world has come down to these few precious moments that we have somehow stolen from the inexorable doom of it all. She wraps her arms around my neck and locks her legs around my waist. "Hurry!" she urges. Her eyes are shut and her face is complaisant and serene. I feel the tender leafage creep up my ankles, tickling my flesh. There are sprigs growing and winding around my legs. I feel as though I'm the vine growing in her, sprouting a bud that quickly swells and bursts into an unraveling blossom of silky petals. She groans and turns her head off to the side as another flower bursts forth and fades away. The prickly branches whip and thrash against our skin and tentacles begin to entwine our bodies and tugs at us.
Our euphoric quickly turns to dismay as we find ourselves being dragged off into the spiny briar. We rail and struggle against being swallowed up by it. I grab the axe and flail it about the bramble to free us. Then, the harried creature-like thicket suddenly lifts us up in its gullet-like hollow and spits us out across the floor of the lobby. We scramble up and dash into the vault anteroom. I swing the iron-bar gate shut and close the wood door behind it.
We lean against the door, panting and exhausted, our hearts thumping away. We begin to titter at the bizarre madness of our escapade. Our laughter grows louder and fills the hollow anteroom, drowning out the noise from the lobby. We become exuberantly giddy as we realize our reprieve and that we had left our clothes behind and are naked.
"I can see the headlines now," I joke, "Survivors Uncovered."
"Dear me!" she flippantly jests. "I have absolutely nothing to wear for my coming out," she adds as she pompously droops her limp wrist and giggles at her own spoof.
“Survivors Bare All,” I add.
Our joviality turns to uneasiness as the bangs and thumps outside the door grow heavier. We stand by the door and caress each other as we quietly listen to the menace outside.
“You rescued me,” she praises in a whisper.
“Maybe we were just kicked out?” I joke half-heartedly.
"I hope they have blankets when they come," she says in a more sober and modest tone as she pulls away and begins snooping about the small room.
"They always have blankets in the choppers," I tell her as I sit imperiously on a metal chair at a desk and beckon her to join me. The antechamber is set up as a security station and on the desk is a clipboard with a sign-in sheet full with signatures and next to it a key ring festooned with keys. The emergency lamps mounted at the corners of the ceiling beam down on us like spotlights of a theatrical stage. She settles on my lap and cuddles up close. She has splendorous skin that is soft as satin with a spicy scent.
"I used to sit on my father's lap like this," she whispers in a low, sultry voice, then lets loose with an impetuous laugh as she flings her head back and adds more amorously: "of course, with my clothes on." She rests her head on my shoulder and tells me:
"I remember when I was fourteen and my parents left me at a girl's camp for the summer. It was the most horrible time imaginable. There was nothing to do and I felt like a prisoner. The other girls were all geeks, and the counselor was hitting on me. He was such a leech, with his lewd conversations and obscene touches made my skin crawl. I just wanted out. And just when I thought I couldn't bear it anymore, just when I was feeling desperate and abandoned, ready to do anything that was wild and crazy, my father drives up to bring me home. He came to fetch me because he thought I wasn't having a good enough time there. I had never felt more relieved in my life. Father was wonderful that way. He always seemed to know what I wanted, and sometimes I just wanted out. That was such a marvelous feeling back then.”
A loud wrenching sound penetrates the anteroom as the iron-grille gate is wrested from its anchors and then followed by thumps from uncoiling branches menacingly striking the door.
“I remember a camping trip with my mother," I tell the girl to keep her mind occupied and to share a secret with her. "Mom had lost her gold charm bracelet while swimming in the river and I spent the whole afternoon diving for it as she watched from the shore. The charm bracelet was irreplaceable, an heirloom. I could see her get more and more discouraged as the time passed. But I was persistent and wouldn't stop until I found it for her. I still remember that final plunge into the murky, cold water when, with my lungs aching and ready to burst, I saw the glittering bracelet between some rocks. I snatched the bracelet in hand and shoved off from the bottom with my feet and shot out of the water, waving the bracelet high in the air. I remember seeing my mother jumping with joy. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. It made her so happy…and me so proud."
"Shhh!” the girl abruptly interrupts. "Listen! I think I hear a helicopter."
We both listen. A dampened, whirling thud comes through the vent in the wall. We stand and go over to the vent. "You need to crawl through there and get out and let them know we're here," she tells me.
I go and retrieve the axe and the chair that I slide over to the wall. I stand on the chair and whack the axe into the screen of the vent and rip the metal grate from the opening. I measure the opening by running my hands along the edges and then, shimmying carefully up, I slither into the cold, metal duct and wriggle myself completely in.
My flesh tugs and squeaks against the dry metal sheets as I crawl forward toward a faint panel of light that gleams in the distance. I reach a section covered with smooth, tender leaves that brush and titillate my skin as I pass through it. I grab hold of a vine that runs beneath me and I pull my sweat-drenched body along the foliage until I ram head-on to the matted clump of roots and branches that meets me deep in the passageway. I stop and rest and study the menacing and brooding mass in front of me. For a moment, I feel as though I am intruding, an uninvited guest, disturbing some sacred ritual in some god-forsaken sanctuary where I don’t belong. Then it gives off a dismissing groan of utter contempt that riles and aggravates me and I plunge back in at it. I holler as I repeatedly thrust myself into its gnarly heap, smashing it with my head and shoulders, butting it again and again, straining to shove the packed obstacle out of my way. I pull back to rest and catch my breath. I find myself awash in a pulpy mash leaving my body slick and unconstrained.
"Are you there yet?" I hear the girl's shallow voice echo amid my exhausted pants and the stirring ring from my exertion.
I feel the sprouting thorns of the stubble pricking my skin and I heave forward again, entangling myself deeper in the fibrous roots of the morass. I withdraw and then thrust back in, ramming my head up into the thicket that rakes and scratches my face and shoulders. I pull back and then lunge forward, straining with all my might to break through to the white flittering daylight just beyond. I withdraw and lie there exhausted and weakened. I stare at the coarse, thick mesh of entangled intricacies that block my way. It is a tangled, irrational imbroglio, impregnable in its magnitude and incomprehensible in its purpose that no man can unravel or vanquish. “You God damn son of a bitch!” I execrated and spit at the ungodly mass. And then with one final thrust immersed myself deep within it. "Fuck you!" I spew and yank myself back from its clutches and slither down the hollow passage to the room, where I plop out of the hole and fall to the floor.
I stand there, stunned by it all. My body is veined like a leaf with scratches and lacerations and smirched by a film of drying perspiration and pulp. I look over at the girl. She is covered in green as though she has sprouted her own foliage.
"Do you like it?" she asks, as she spins around like a fashion model. "I made a dress out of money from the vault and some adhesive tape I found. Ready to be rescued," she declares.
I go to her and put my hands around her waist and tell her how marvelous she looks.
"Well, are they out there? Are they coming to rescue us?" she asks as she anxiously searches my eyes for the answer.
"There's nothing out there", I report matter-of-factly. "No helicopters. No rescue teams. Nothing. We can weather it out in the vault," I throw out as our next move. "That should get us through until someone comes to save us." I watch as her searching stare turns to alarm, then anger.
"You promised me!" she scolds as she pulls away, wrapping her arms about her midriff as though overcome by a chill. "You told me that a helicopter would be coming and that there would be a rescue team. That we'd be saved," she reconfirms scornfully as she stands sullen and unapproachable.
The door to the vestibule blows open and flies off its hinges. The huge, horrifying mass of life that has gone irretrievably beyond its bounds now lies ominously in front of us. Slivers of the door still hang on its tendrils. Little red blossoms shaped like grapnel are splattered through it. Earthly debris and entrails are tangled up in its barbs and dangle like ornaments. It almost resembles a ferocious face, but without the eyes. We quickly gather what we can and go into the vault. I swing the heavy metal door shut and lock it. The irretrievable clank of its lock resounds deep in my chest.
She moves off to the far end of the vault as I settle down on the floor. I'm limp and exhausted and stare at the metal levers and wheels of the door. I know quite well it is the only way in with no way out. I feel betrayed and resentful. But I am also beginning to concede the inevitable. Had I been stronger, perhaps this would have been avoided.
"Wasn't there anything out there?" she asks subdued and sulky.
"Nothing, just the will o' the wisp," I utter in my weariness.
“Why did you drag me in here?” she accuses.
“I don’t know. I just thought you’d be safer here.”
She leans against the metal wall and morosely stares at her somber reflection in the golden sheen. I can feel her silence scolding me. "At least we'll die rich," she tosses out dryly without looking over at me.
"We may as well make the most of it. We'll probably be here awhile," I tell her as I stand.
She draws out some pull strings from the empty burlap bags that are stacked on a shelf. She knots them together and ties them around her waist cinching up her crepe-like dress. "Maybe I can make something out of these bags that will cover me up better," she flouts, "maybe a robe?"
"Maybe a frock," I wryly retort.
Her look is detached and forbidding. Her damp hair is pulled back off her face though moist ringlets remain sticking on her temples, her face cold and pale, her eyes constricted and intense, and her lips drawn in a sneer. She has bony knees and long, skinny limbs.
"You know," I offer up in an effort to take the edge off, "all this sort of makes me that proverbial last man on earth we've heard so much about. And you," I grin congenially, "that proverbial last woman."
"You're reprehensible, that's what you are,” she snaps back at me. “Don’t dare touch me. You’re not that hero you made yourself out to be, are you? You’re not my hero, so leave me alone. Hero, ha! You’re despicable...abominable!”
“What about the lobby? What was that?” I mention.
“What about it?” she haughtily asks as her disgust turns to scorn. “You're just like all the other…a big loser. Shit! I’m tired of all that mumbo-jumbo macho bullshit. Ah, but you’re different," she derides in a low, contemptible tone as she tauntingly sashays up just in front of me and stops. "You're the last man on earth,” she says to my face with a snicker of disgust. “Well, they were all the last man on earth in their own unimpressive, pathetic, groveling way. You moron!”
Her eyes glowers with fury and her chastising words fill me with rage. I want to take her right now. Show her what kind of man she is dealing with. Show her the full brunt of my force. I want to pin her frail shoulders to the wall and rip that phony garment off of her and reveal her vulnerabilities. I want to wring that ungodly obstinacy out of her with my bare hands and ravage her jeering femininity into submission. After all, I had saved her! She should be grateful! Let her last vision of me be that of the brute. Let her last gasp of air be a whimper.
But I stop suddenly in my tracks and catch sight of my crazed reflection in the shiny metal wall of the vault. I’m not that lecherous Neanderthal she makes me out to be. I’m not like that at all. I’m simply a man searching for that glittering bracelet in a shimmering stream. How can she trivialize me so? We’re all prisoners here! Can’t she see that? Can’t she understand?
“I understand,” I tell her in a conciliatory tone. “We’re both stuck here and should try to make the best of it,” I add as I approach her.
"You understand," she mocks with an askance look then coldly pulls away. “You’ll understanding anything if it gets you what you want. Well, do you understand I want to be left alone? Stop looking at me! I’m tired of always being gawked at. My life has been nothing more than a parade for gawking men. You’re just like them. You’re sickening! I was to be a photographer and travel the world photographing amazing places and people. I was going to be part of it all. Do you know where I was headed,” she emphatically asks, “when you dragged me in here? I was going to a job interview for a travel magazine. I was on my way….”
“You raped me!” she coolly accuses after a brief pause. “You were to save me,” she guardedly adds as she stops and stares intently at me with her weary eyes. “I'm trapped here” she says discouragingly to herself and looks away. Her lips seem to silently ruminate on those words as the frustration mounts in her. “I need to get out of here,” she pleads. I got to get out of here! Don’t you understand? There’s got to be a way out. I’m suffocating. I need to get out of here!” she shouts and begins trembling and gasping.
“There’s nothing we can do and nowhere to go,” I tell her. I wish I had been stronger. I wish I were a better man. Maybe things would have been different.”
“You wish? You wish? You're despicable,” she spits at me with a frenzy look. “Despicable! Why didn’t you save me?" she harangues as she struggles to free herself from my hold. "You miserable bastard!" she screams. "You're just like all the rest of them. Let go of me! Just go and leave me here alone!" She struggles to free herself, flailing her hands against my chest and kicking my shin in a seizure of desperation. “You’re not my father!” she hollers at me and then her body stiffens and she arches back, facing upward, her eyes are closed and her face serene, almost angelic. She moans as though praying in a slow, shallow suffocating breath then she slings herself forward and spits at me again in a despiteful and defiant way before she collapses in my embrace and sobs.
A baleful tapping resonates through the metal door, and beyond it, the loud clamor like lowing cows. I can hear the clatter of the building blocks being dismantled one by one. Slivers of vegetation have worked their way through the jamb of the door and the battery pack lights on the wall begin to flicker.
I hold her as we wait.
"So here we are," I whisper as she submissively wraps her arms around my neck without looking up, "immured in our vault, waiting for the end."