Logan Rie Webster
Kris tried to imagine what Philadelphia would have looked like Before. Her parents had barely survived the cataclysm, and had told her stories from Before, but she could never picture it in her mind’s eye. All she could see was what this place had become, trees that had lined the streets had taken over, tearing up the asphalt in great chunks. Those skyscrapers that had managed to stay upright sprouted all manner of greenery from their dilapidated windows though, more often than not, they were the barest shells of their former selves. They were twisted husks of steel and glass rising from the sea of undulating green. Worst of all, this new breed of greenery was vicious, and craved flesh. Kris’s parents had survived it, for a time, and had dedicated their lives to identifying, categorizing, and combating the new breeds of carnivorous plants that sprung up over the years after The War. Their passions for botany, the very thing that had brought the two young scientists together, became their living hell.
Kris held out a hand blocking her rookie's forward progress before they stumbled onto a dead man, silently chastising herself for her lapse in attention. Kris laughed to herself, thinking that she probably shouldn’t have thought of the rookie as “young.” Indeed, there likely wasn’t much more than five years between them in age: it was just that Kris had started as a Scavenger earlier than most thanks to her parents’ tutelage. She realized she hadn’t bothered to learn the young woman's name either. Then again, Kris rarely did for those who hadn’t even survived their first mission.
The pair retreated and crouched a short distance away, trying to assess what had killed the man first: the neurotoxin from the hawthorn spur lodged in his throat, or the carnivorous mile-a-minute vine that was busy leaching away the nutrients from his body. Either way, it didn’t really matter what had killed him; the man had been wearing a pack when he died and their need for the supplies necessitated a quick and dirty assessment, not an in depth study.
“The mile-a-minute might be sluggish,” suggested the rookie thoughtfully, “since it's already feasting on two.” She absently slapped a probing tendril of kudzu off of her arm while taking in the rest of their surroundings for potential hazards. She slid her Pulaski, a combination axe and adze, from where it was strapped on her bag and hefted it while thinking.
Kris was impressed, despite herself. The rookie had noted the dead fox by the human body before she had, and was already clearing a safe zone from any plant material in case they needed to beat a hasty retreat from the vines. The mile-a-minute was a writhing mass of greenery as it fed; releasing various acids to help break down the corpses for quicker absorption.
“Keep the mile-a-minute off my back and keep your eyes sharp for anything else,” Kris ordered the rookie as she observed the scene. She didn't trust the woman, but it was their best bet. At the rookie's nod of acknowledgement, Kris dashed in. She tugged the hawthorn spur from the dead man's neck and slid it into a pocket before drawing her knife to slice through the offending plants. The mile-a-minute was thick and strong, and Kris gritted her teeth to keep from vomiting when she cut skin along with plant fiber when her knife slipped.
So much for respect for the dead.
The mile-a-minute started grasping at her gloves, looking for some purchase on their surface to grab a hold of, already leaving acidic pockmarks. Kris could hear her rookie hacking it back away from her as she worked. Kris scraped the tendrils away with her knife between strokes around the bag, the rasp of metal on leather a strange contrast to the hiss of the moving vines. She said some rather rude comments to the plants while she worked, much to the amusement of the rookie.
“Would you talk to your mother with a mouth like that?” teased the rookie, a waiver in her voice the only indication of the nerves that must have been coursing through her. She hissed as a rogue vine caught the exposed skin of her cheek, letting out a colorful curse of her own.
Kris rolled her eyes but grinned internally. “I learned it from my mother,” she countered. Scavengers risked life and limb daily, and many developed a casual attitude towards death as a means of coping.
A shout from the rookie warned Kris of the unforeseen kudzu plant snaking up her ankle. By the time Kris freed herself from its grasp her work on the mile-a-minute was nearly undone. She forced herself to move faster, to break the pack free a second time, her care waning with as her desperation increased. Again, a warning from the rookie gave Kris a chance to avoid another grab by the kudzu.
At some point in her scramble to push back the vines around Kris and the corpse, the rookie had closed the man’s vacant, staring eyes, Kris realized. Kris was not sure exactly when, as it seemed to have been an unconscious gesture. She found it comforting to not have to face the accusations of the corpse each time she looked at his bloated face. What did the dead have need for supplies? As she cut, she overheard the rookie offering up quiet prayers for the man, while she hacked back the mile-a-minute and kudzu so they wouldn’t resprout on top of them. Kris took some small comfort from the prayer, and, surprising as it was, in the back of her mind hoped that someone would pray over her when she died.
“Do you reckon it does anything?” she asked. “The praying,” she clarified when her question was met with silence.
“I reckon it can’t hurt any,” replied the rookie quietly. “My folks figure Judgement Day is at hand, but I don’t think it matters either way. We live the life we’re dealt. I just want someone to mark my passing when I go, you know? So I figure praying for the dead is the least I can do.”
Kris grunted in response, before giving the bag a tug few tugs to test if she needed to do anymore to finish cutting it free. Instead with a snap of greenery, the bag dislodged and Kris fell ass over ears at the unexpected ease of removal. The rookie hauled her upright and began the de-planting procedure, while Kris swiftly and expertly picked bits of mile-a-minute off of the bag.
“Thanks,” grunted Kris before returning the favor. She took a moment to check the position of the sun. “We can get a few more miles in before we pick a safehouse for the night,” she suggested. “There won’t be enough moon to travel by after dark, so I want to make sure we’re good and holed up.”
They set off at a quick clip, being sure to avoid the toxic flowers blooming, the venomous briar lashing out, and Kris even had to drag the rookie away from a poisonous blueberry bush with a firm No. They pushed their way through a dense patch of Japanese knotweed and had to scramble to get rid of the seeds as they sprouted on them and their gear. While the knotweed wasn’t overly dangerous itself, it always seemed to carry other seeds with it when it sprouted.
As they walked, Kris took inventory of the bag. There was a folding knife that Kris passed to the rookie, some dried foodstuffs, a coil of rope, a magnesium fire starter, and a rudimentary medical kit. They were all things that she currently had, but she could definitely never have enough of. Even the bag was useful, it was in far better condition than her own so she transferred her equipment to it and folded her old pack into the top compartment to keep things dry.
Had she been less engrossed in her spoils and paying more attention to her surroundings, she may have noticed the creak of the branch as it swung to attack. Instead, the solid weight of the rookie tackling her brought her down just as the branch passed overhead. “Got a swinger,” gasped the rookie as she rolled off of Kris. Both stumbled to their feet, and Kris had a moment to breathe and consider her life before a second blow caught her square in the chest. She flew back several feet and slammed into the ground again hard enough to see stars. The bag she carried also did more damage than good, making sure Kris was equally bruised on both sides. She didn’t have enough air in her lungs to gasp as another hit came down on her chest, followed almost immediately by another to the side of her head. Kris could feel something warm trickling down the side of her face. She had no clue where the rookie was and had no means to track her attacker, let alone look for the other woman. Before she could pull herself together, another series of blows rained down on her. So Kris did what any decent person would do in that situation -- she died.
Or so she thought. Kris realized that apparently you can be wrong about your own death as she regained consciousness.
The first thing she noticed was that it was dark, meaning a number of hours had passed since the oak had attacked. She could feel movement under her, and the slow hiss of something being dragged along the ground. A mental inventory of her injuries told her that she had suffered from at least one broken rib, a sprained shoulder, and likely a concussion. Blood from what had to be her ear or a split bruise had pasted her hair to the side of her head. She couldn’t move her arms or sit up. Doing so was probably a bad idea anyway, seeing as the oak was planted firmly above her.
She peeled back her eyes again, only to see the trees high above moving slowly past. “They walk?” she croaked aloud. No one had ever seen trees walking, but it wouldn’t surprise her. The movement stopped abruptly and something, no, someone, fell beside her.
“You’re alive?” she heard the rookie whisper and heard the woman’s breath hitch. “Christ, you scared me.”
“Shhhh. They’ll hear you,” Kris replied, pointing up at the trees. Her voice was slurred, she noted absently. The rookie’s face came into view above her and she had to blink several times to bring her in to focus, something she found difficult in the semi-darkness. “The trees were walking.”
The rookie blinked slowly. “I was dragging you,” she said. “There’s a safehouse another mile from here, if I remember the map correctly. VG 10, I think.” She chewed her lip.
Kris could feel her eyes flutter closed.
“Hey!” the rookie’s sharp tone made Kris jump and her eyes snapped open again. “Don't fall asleep on me. That's one hell of a concussion you've got there and I've got no means of telling just how bad it is until we're at the safe house.”
Kris's head was pounding from the effort to keep the rookie in focus and she closed her eyes again to relieve the pain. “Leave me here, kid. I can’t make that walk, not in this state.”
“Oh hell no,” snapped the rookie. Kris’s eyes cracked open again in surprise. “First of all, you’re like, two years older than me, so don’t call me kid. My name is Meghan, Meg if you prefer. Second, you don’t get to give up and play the martyr. Not after I fought off the branches and dragged your ass out of the oak and all the way here. It doesn’t work like that.”
Kris shifted uncomfortably under the rookie’s critical stare. Kris noticed the other woman’s arm in a halfway decent sling and several small lacerations marked her cheeks and forearms. After a moment of silence between the two, Kris finally said “Alright. Help me up then so we can get out of here.” She groaned and swayed as she stood upright, but somehow managed to stay standing without too much outside support. However, standing was all she could do, because when she took a step forward she nearly collapsed with a gasp. The rookie caught her and slipped Kris’s good arm around her shoulders. Her leg must have been in bad shape - so Kris mentally added it to her growing list of injuries to inspect later.
The more they trudged along, the further into delirium Kris fell. She remembered vague bits and pieces as they stumbled along the road they found. Kris figured the assorted colors and general wibbly-wobbliness of the forest was entirely due to her damaged brain. She wasn’t certain that the talking rose bush really was a delusion bred from her delirium so decided it was best to steer clear of it for now. After all, you could never be sure with plants, she told herself. All she knew for sure was that she was giggling and staggering about as if she’d partaken in strong spirits, despite the rookie’s best efforts to keep her steady. The rookie kept up a string of babble to try to keep Kris engaged and awake, but both knew that it was inevitably a losing battle if they could not find shelter soon.
It’s no small wonder that they made it to the safehouse, and old cabin half fallen down in the rear. They cut their way through more cloying vines to the entrance, the rookie wielding her trusted Pulaski with a vengeance. Kris stumbled to the fireplace while the rookie fought to get the door closed, hacking at the vines that still slipped through. They needed fire and fast. It would keep the plants at bay and allow them to burn anything that got through. Kris’s hands were trembling so bad that she could hardly get a spark going. It was a miracle that she didn’t burn the place to the ground around them. When she finally managed to get a few branches burning, she handed one to the rookie for the front door now that the vines had mostly been beaten back and started going window to window to burn any other questing vines. No safe house was ever completely safe, especially ones so far out in the wilds, but they did what they could with what they had available.
A low growl made both Scavengers stop, turning slowly towards the collapsed part of the cabin. A female coyote stood among the rubble, teeth bared back in a snarl. She was very clearly nursing a litter, her teats hanging low and heavy with milk, yet her ribs still stood out on her sides. She was starved, and they were a potential meal with nowhere else to go. The rookie breathed out a curse as the beast took a slow step down into the main part of the cabin, assuring Kris that it wasn’t a product of her concussion-induced hallucinations.
They were trapped between a starving animal and the insatiable plants behind them. Kris weighed her options as best she could while thinking through the mud currently serving as her brain. With a sudden shout, Kris sprang at the coyote, brandishing her burning branch in one hand and her knife in the other like a sword, swinging both defiantly. The coyote danced back and let out another snarl. They came together with another loud noise and fell to the ground, locked in a close tussle, rolling about, Kris raining blows down with her good arm and the coyote snapping and snarling. Kris cried out as the coyote sank teeth into her forearm. With her own snarl, Kris felt around for her shirt pocket, her fingers closing around what she was looking for. With a triumphant shout, she plunged the hawthorn spur deep into the coyote’s flank. The coyote jerked away, wrenching the spur from Kris’s grasp and let out a howl of pain, it’s back legs nearly giving out as the hawthorn’s potent poison seeped into its system. It fell on Kris and the woman cried out as it collapsed, convulsing as the neurotoxin reached its brain.
The rookie had taken two steps from the door to come to Kris’s aid before it burst open behind her and a wall of poison ivy, kudzu, mile-a-minute, and giant hogweed rushed in. With a shout, the rookie turned back and shoved her weight into the door to stem the sudden onslaught of greenery, dropping her Polaski in the process.
Kris managed to shove the dead weight of the coyote off of her and glanced to the door. “Rook!” Kris shouted a warning from her place on the ground, as she tried desperately to make her body respond. She watched a lashing vine tear another streak across the rookie’s face. This one turned almost immediately white from the burning acid. The rookie screamed a challenge and reached behind her to grab at nothing; the fire was too far away.
Another scream from the rookie got Kris onto her feet and charging the door with nothing but her knife. The rookie’s hands and arms were a network of acid and poison blisters, the poison ivy doing it’s best to sink tiny roots into her leg and the giant hogweed releasing a toxic pollen into the air. Kris cut the poison ivy away, heedless of her own hands and lungs burning. She’d had worse. She grabbed blindly for another burning branch from the fire and threw it full force into the open doorway. The vines and hogweed recoiled immediately and she slammed the door shut, leaning against it heavily.
The two Scavengers faced each other, panting, bleeding, burning. “You did alright, Meg,” Kris croaked. The last thing Kris remember was the floor greeting her rather more abruptly than she’d expected. She felt a weird sensation then, as if Meg were trying to shake her, was screaming her name. But she was exhausted. She just needed to rest a bit. Kris welcomed the slow slip into the wonderful, dangerous oblivion of sleep.
Logan is a conservation biologist by training and chemist by trade. His childhood was spent inventing fantasies and sleeping in the footprints of dinosaurs. While Logan's a bit too big to fit in the dinosaur footprints anymore (and yes, he's tried), he never really grew out of the fantastical.
He currently lives in West Philly with his partner, their cats, dog, and roommate. To read more of Logan's work visit his website, www.loganriewebster.com.