KUDZU

Ah, to be young and beautiful again.

Harold stared at the monitor and sighed. Things were exactly as he had thought they would be. The situation out there was exactly as his predictions had indicated.

He swept his fingers back through his grey hair and frowned. He was too old, really, to care anymore, so this last bit of loose ends was all he had left to tie up.

“What are you doing, Harold?” asked his wife.

He did not turn back to look at her. Her face was young and beautiful now, her restored youth a memory of a time when he’d been happy, far and away from here, but those happy memories brought back painful ones, old memories he did not wish to remember, so he did not look at her.

“I’m talking to you, you worthless lout!” snapped his wife. “What are you doing?”

He sighed again. She had just awoken, though she had been asleep for a very long time, far longer than she had ever anticipated, but his sigh was due to having to endure her rotten, domineering attitude again; it was due to having to endure her demeaning, incredibly-selfish tone of voice once more.

“I’m checking the environmental statistics,” he said in a tired voice. “There’s no reason to get snippy, Circe.”

“Don’t sass me, Harold,” warned his wife, Circe. “I want to know what’s going on, and…Wait…What…What is this?”

“What is what?” asked Harold, though he already knew the answer to that question.

“I can’t move, you moron!” hissed his wife. “What have you done!”

“I’ve followed through with my promise,” stated Harold. “I’ve made you young and beautiful again…You’ll be beautiful forever…well…relatively speaking.”

“That doesn’t explain why I can’t move, you idiot!” barked his wife. “And how do I know you’re telling the truth, huh?…Wait…What do you mean ‘relatively speaking’?”

“It means you were always lovely on the outside,” frowned Harold. “However, it’s the beauty on the inside that matters. That was all I ever cared about.”

“I know you’re insulting me,” said his wife. “And you haven’t explained anything. I want to see if you’re telling the truth, and I want to know why I can’t move!”

“Here’s what you look like,” sighed Harold.

He punched in a command into one of his keyboards, the central one, as there were several compact supercomputers in this little room, this observation room parked above his underground research facility.

He had a semicircular command desk before him with all of the necessary equipment needed to facilitate his upcoming plan, and that plan was to grant his wife everything she deserved…and she was definitely going to get what she deserved.

The huge observation monitor above his head had been dark, just a flat black screen, but upon a button press of the enter key, it flipped on to reveal Circe’s new face, or rather, her old one, the one she had worn fifty years ago.

She really was beautiful, with full red lips, flawless peach-brushed skin, and dark eyes, dark, Greek eyes that spoke of mysterious things. Only her face showed, however, just that beautiful timeless face encircled by a black screen, beauty enshrined in darkness, a representation of her true self, the Circe on the inside.

“That…That’s me?” asked Circe in audible disbelief. “Really?”

Her image on the screen perfectly mimicked the motion of her speech, as did her facial expressions.

“Yes,” sighed Harold. “I have done as you’ve asked. You are young again, and you will stay young forever.”

His wife was silent for a few seconds, a miracle in his opinion, but that did not last long.

“If what you say is true…then I can finally start over,” she said cautiously.

“Yes,” he said in sad reply.

But her tone changed back to its normal cutting edge a second later.

“I still can’t move, Harold,” she said angrily. “What did you do?”

“I gave you what you wanted,” he shrugged.

He kept his attention on the lower monitor in front of him, because he did not want to look at her, either on the giant monitor above him or in the flesh.

“You did something,” replied Circe. “Did you paralyze me? Because if you did, I’ll have you in prison so fast it’ll make your head spin!”

“There are no prisons anymore,” said Harold quietly.

“What?” asked his wife. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What year do you think it is?” he asked. “Do I not look any older than I did yesterday?”

“What are you talking about?” asked Circe. “You’ve looked like a withered old prune for years now.”

“You laid down on the operating table yesterday,” said Harold. “Or, at least, you think it was yesterday.”

“I’ve been out for an entire day?” asked Circe. “I need to contact Leo…”

“He’s gone, Circe,” replied Harold. “They’re all gone.”

“What?” asked his wife. “What are you babbling on about, you crazy old coot?”

“It’s been five years, Circe,” said Harold firmly. “It’s been five years since you went under on that operating table.”

“Five years?” asked Circe in audible disbelief. “That’s nonsense, Harold. What game are you playing?”

“There’s no game,” sighed Harold. “I built this complex twenty-five years ago, built it to withstand the end. I knew it was coming, and a few others, not many, mind you, planned for its coming. Those that could afford it—those mega-wealthy parasites you’ve always wanted to be—they planned for this contingency and fled, taking their fortunes with them to the stars, those fortunes converted to the greatest prize of all, the chance to live.”

“What are you talking about!” hissed Circe. “Get me on the phone with Leo, you nutjob!…Right now, Harold!”

“Your lawyer is dead, you old witch,” muttered Harold.

“What did you call me!” asked Circe in cold anger.

“You heard me,” sighed Harold.

“You’re finished, Harold,” replied his wife. “As soon as I get on the phone with Leo—”

“He’s dead, Circe,” said Harold, this time with a firmness in his voice that could not be denied.

“Wh…What?” stammered the irate woman.

“They’re all dead,” said Harold. “The pandemic you were used to—used to ignoring, I might add—ballooned out of control due to a deadly mutation that killed everyone else. Anyone who was not a billionaire is dead. I suppose there are other wealthy members of society trapped in underground bunkers, but they won’t last long. The atmosphere itself is inundated with the virus, because it has spread through all foliage, every plant on Earth…The plants literally breathe out the disease…You see, there’s no one left.”

“That’s nonsense…” replied his wife, but this time, the tone of her voice was unsure.

“You breathe it in, and you die,” said Harold. “Your lungs fill up with mucus, and you suffocate. You have lesions spread throughout your internal organs, multiple blood clots…extreme failure of all vital functions. It’s so quick and deadly that…there was no real defense against it.”

“You’re lying—” started Circe, but Harold cut her short.

He continued on with his explanation regardless of whether she wanted to listen to it or not.

“It wasn’t a natural mutation, you see,” explained Harold. “It came about due to a combination of different warring factions within the global governments. Different secret labs, different weaponizations…Don’t you see? Instead of working together, we killed everyone. Isn’t that grand?”

“The only thing grand are your delusions!” spat Circe. “Liar! You’re lying!”

This time, he did turn to look at her.

“No,” he frowned. “I’ve prepared for the end for a very long time, even though I didn’t know how it would come about…but I never thought our own foliage would mutate and kill us…It’s a deadly symbiosis between plant and virus…Yes, the end came, and now that it’s come and gone, my work is done.”

“Work!” screeched Circe. “All you’ve ever done is play with your plants! Some geneticist you are…If you had put more work into making money than with tinkering with your overgrown garden, we would be sitting pretty with the real players! Now give me my phone! I’m calling Leo, and I’m getting a divorce! I’m getting half, Harold!…No…I want more than half! You’ve wasted my life with your sniveling pathetic worthlessness!”

Harold turned, typed in a command on the central keyboard, and hovered his finger over the enter key.

“I’ve given you exactly what I promised you, Circe,” he said unhappily. “You will stay young and beautiful forever. Once I hit this key, you’ll see what I mean. This observation port is designed to collapse once I hit enter. The room is currently sealed, but once I hit this single little button, outside air will come flooding in.”

“What are you doing, Harold!” cried Circe. “Don’t do that!”

“Oh, so you believe me now?” asked Harold with a smug grin.

“I believe you’re crazy!” hissed his wife.

“There’s no one left, Circe,” he replied with a shake of his old head. “But you’ll figure that out on your own. Right now…Right now, I just need to…to explain this…”

“Explain what, you nutjob!” spat Circe.

“You know that altered species of kudzu you liked?” he shrugged. “The kind I made live for thousands of years? It’s a vine, but the offspring of my research can grow anywhere, spread anywhere, and it will. It will spread from its parent source…It was the one thing you valued out of my research…Sad, really. It’s an invasive species over here because it smothers everything around it, but that’s you, isn’t it? You’re beautiful, but you went and invaded my life, went and smothered my best years…”

“Well, you don’t need to worry about that anymore,” said Circe with her own smug grin. “Once I get Leo on the phone, I’ll have you put in an asylum…Maybe they’ll give you a lobotomy. Then…Oh, ho, ho, ho…Then I’m going to get myself a young man in his twenties, maybe a twenty-one-year-old…Oh, yes…That sounds spicy…We’ll do a little turn in the bedsheets, and I’ll send you the film. I’ll be sure to film some closeups for you, you pitted old prune.”

Harold ignored her this time. He was finally in control, and he would be for the next few moments, his last few moments. His newly restored wife was finally going to get her just deserts.

He walked over to the north wall and to the large mirror he had stashed there. That mirror was covered with a white bedsheet, but he did not remove that sheet, not yet. He wheeled that covered mirror over to face his wife, and then he gave her a cold smile.

“It’s time for the big reveal,” he said, his old voice shaky with excitement. “You see, most mammals and other animals died off during the initial spread of the virus, but Earth’s plant life survived. Our foliage breathes in that mutation, and our plant life is stronger because of that symbiosis…So, over the last five years, I suppose I got lucky with my little project. Originally, I had intended this to be a sweet revenge, something to park in my ‘overgrown garden,’ but trust me when I say, I had no idea that this viral mutation would occur. I had no idea how ironic my work was going to be…”

“What are you babbling ab…” began Circe, but her voice trailed off into nothing upon viewing her own reflected image.

Harold pulled the white sheet from the mirror, and his wife stared in visible shock at her own reflection.

The trellis she was pinned upon was all white-painted wood, and she, herself, was just a face, her beautiful, restored face, the vines of kudzu spanning out from all around her face, her body now something very different, completely alien from what she had been five years ago. Except for her face, she was all kudzu now.

“Wha…Wha…What is this?” she stammered.

“I’ve mixed you completely with the kudzu,” smiled Harold. “I’ve made a few adjustments, of course, but…you will stay young and beautiful forever…never aging, never dying…I even made you venomous, extremely toxic, so that you’ll never be eaten by insects or anything else. You see, dear, it’s a perfect mirror for what you truly are.”

“This is a trick…” said Circe as her voice wavered.

“No,” smiled Harold. “There’s no trick. There’s a mirror, but there’s no smoke. You are the first human-plant hybrid in existence. In fact, you’re the only human left that’s immune to the virus. Don’t you see? You’re like Matheson’s Legend.”

But his old heart felt a twinge of regret as his wife’s dark eyes misted over with teary moisture.

“It’s a lie…” she choked out. “This is impossible! You’re lying!”

But those dark eyes turned to disgust and hatred in a flash, something Harold was all too familiar with.

“I’ll have your head!” she screeched. “I’ll grind your bones into powder and use them as my foundation, Harold! I’ll smear on what’s left of you as makeup! Do you hear me!”

“Oh, I hear you,” said Harold, amusement tinging his voice.

He wheeled the mirror away from her, wheeling it back to its original spot across the room to rest against the north wall, though that wall was coming down in a moment.

“I hear you just fine,” he said firmly. “Now…I’ve set you in this direction so that you can watch the sun set behind the trees every night. Of course, there won’t be much for you to do anymore but think, so I’d ponder the life choices you made…mainly your treatment of others…Enjoy your eternal beauty and youth, my love. There won’t be anyone around to see it, but that’s not my problem.”

He walked over to his command desk and hit the enter key on his central keyboard. The small room hissed along its seals as all four walls came apart, lowering their structures toward the dark earth beneath them.

He had come up here through the sealed freight elevator beneath his wife, coming up from down below where he had diligently worked on his wife over the last five years, living alone in that underground compound like the mad hermit he had become, but the sad truth was that he had always been alone, living alone even though he had been married for fifty years, so his five years below had been nothing in comparison to that.

He breathed in the deadly air around him and immediately felt his lungs shrivel.

“Now you can…” he gasped out as he fell to his knees.

“Harold!” screeched his wife in rage.

“Finally…” gasped Harold as he placed his hands on the metal floor beneath him.

“Harold!” screeched Circe again.

“Know…what it is…” choked out Harold.

“HAROOOOOOLD!” screamed his wife, her beautiful restored face a crimson fury, a scarlet flower amidst the mass of vines she now was.

“To be…” he struggled to breathe.

He collapsed to the floor of his now open observation deck and closed his eyes.

“Alone…” he breathed out, his dying breath, a smile permanently etched across his weathered lips.

Kudzu Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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