I swore I’d let the kudzu take me, and I meant it at the time.
Laying here in the quarry’s midday sun alone, though, dusty rocks digging into my neck and tailbone, I’m less certain. My heart skips as the smothering foliage three meters off groans closer. But I know my doubt’s just the time of the month talking—my always-fleeting reprieve.
Katya’s protests replay in my head while I wait: “We can find more analgesics,” she’d said, so exasperated, like I was the one being dramatic. “It’s not like the whole world’s already out—”
“Okay, but this is the sixth empty pharmacy now, and unless you’re hiding another map—”
So much bickering when the whole time, I could have just laid down and died like I’m doing now. Soon, she can rejoin that bunker colony that wouldn’t take me. Find some guy to replace me with, settle down for real, without a liability like me to keep her on the surface. She’ll never have to see another bullshit bramble of this sentience-spliced plant again, and it won’t matter anymore that our well of painkillers ran dry.
Even so, I grit my teeth as a fresh wave of moans oozes from the approaching vines, those telltale echoes of consumed souls. The blackened leaves tread closer. Whispering threats over the jagged ground, they home in on their next meal so directly it’s like they can smell me. I shiver as that thought solidifies—maybe they can. Does anyone left understand how they hunt?
I try to breathe slowly. Close my eyes. If it’s not this, it’ll be my own mutinous body. I remember the images in that doctor’s office of my twisted ovary, the lesions they’d scraped off three other organs when they went in to fix it. How they’d known that it could recur but then left all that shit in there. The hot rage in my chest as I’d yelled to Katya about it over the phone, cried in her lap monthly after she moved in, drunk down my home pharmacy ad nauseum like I could win if I just held it off—
But not now.
Now, after so long in these cycles of pain, I’m just tired. Bored of it. And even in the sun, bones deep—I’m cold.
In halting twitches, eyes still clamped shut, I inch out a shaking hand. I expect it to take longer, but the sharp foliage finds my fingers in seconds—my breath catches as the skin parts. The kudzu creeps faster. I clench my jaw, tense my whole body to keep still as the vines snake up my hand, my wrist, my forearm. The cuts sting and sink deeper. My nervous system shrieks at me to fight or flee, but I tamp that down too, glue my spine to the rocks and will this surrender to work as boots pound toward me from the other direction—
Katya yanks my arm so hard it almost leaves its socket.
“You absolute jackass,” she screams, throwing me behind her with alarming strength. She’s smaller than me, but I guess that’s adrenaline for you. As my arm bleeds, hers swings down hard, blade in hand, hacking back the cursed vines. I start to stammer some defense, but she cuts me off: “You don’t get to die on purpose. You don’t get to die alone. Do you hear me?” I realize then that I’m crying. In sync with the swings of her machete, she continues to yell as the aggressive kudzu tendrils curl back from the metal: “You—are not—allowed—to die!”
When she whirls back around, her chest heaving, I’m folded in on myself, knees to chest, like maybe I could disappear that way. I don’t know. I hear rather than see the machete slide back into its place at her hip. My face is hot and wet, and I can’t look at her. She demands I get up. I can’t do that either. I can’t do anything.
The kudzu creeps.
Through watery peripherals, I’m half aware that Katya circles around behind me. She puts her small hands on my shoulders, and for a second, I think she means to comfort me, massage me back to life or something. Then she shoves me onto my side. The gravel burns as it hits my wounds, but I stay tight in my ball. She’s going to make this simple for me—it’s slow to start, but she finds a rhythm, rolling me away like a weepy human tire, specks and then streaks of red in our wake.
I make it halfway back to camp before yielding.
As Katya pushes me over once more, I catch myself. She scoffs, but there’s relief in it. She backs up a step to regain her breath while I stabilize on my knees, wiping my eyes as I wait for the world to stop spinning. Then, slowly, gracelessly, I hobble up.
I don’t know what to do with my arms. They cross and uncross and fall to my sides, blood dripping off them into the dirt. When I finally glance over, meet her eyes, I find them surprisingly red, lids puffed up, maybe as bad as mine. And furious. I look back to the ground, withering in the afterimage. Wanting more than ever to dissolve. But I open a timid hand.
Her fingers close around mine.