I need to get inside the building.
The formerly white structure is now veined with greenish brown mold. The windows are all black squares, decorated with shards of broken glass. I stand and watch, but nothing moves inside the building. This is all that remains of the laboratory where I labored to end the world.
I did not know that would be the result, of course. Scientific research can have many applications. I was simply investigating chemical compounds that fuel cell growth. My research could have led to cancer therapies or increased food yields. I can’t be held responsible for the government’s choice to apply my findings in another manner.
Evidence of their choice surrounds me. The building is in shadow, for the sun is blocked out by the gargantuan trees looming above. These are not normal trees. Some are twisted and vine-like, other are merely a collection of cancerous bulges. Then there is the field of chest-high weeds, dandelions like misshapen sunflowers. So much for the beautifully manicured lawn.
My hands feel cold and stiff. I look down and realize that I have been gripping the metal bars of the iron fence surrounding the building. There was no fence when I worked here. Back then, we counted on a nondescript appearance and locked doors for our security. This fence must have been added later, after I was transferred to another facility.
Enough reminiscing; I came here for a reason. I climb the fence, quickly pulling myself up. Halfway down the other side, I set my foot down and miss. I dangle in space for a moment before I fall. As I lay in the dirt, stunned from the impact, a pair of shoes appears in my line of vision. I struggle to sit up but it is too late, the person is already in front of me. I think I recognize him.
“John?” I ask.
He doesn’t respond, not even by looking down at me. His clothes are tattered and his hair is matted.
“Hey, John? Do you remember me?”
He is still not responding. His empty gaze is proof, as if I need any, that the compounds I developed have unexpected consequences.
“So, John, things are looking pretty bad now, huh?”
I don’t have time for this, but it might be dangerous to turn my back on him.
“What if I told you I can fix it? There are chemicals that I’ve synthesized, in that lab. I think…” I hesitate before saying, “I think I can make a cure.”
He is still silent. I find myself raising my voice.
“John, I know I screwed everything up.”
He finally responds.
“I’m hungry,” he says. There is no inflection in his voice. The old John is gone, perhaps, but there is somebody in there. I do feel sorry for him.
“You know, I think there may be food inside the building. Do you think you could take me to a door? Maybe we could find something for you to eat.”
John stares into space for a moment, then nods.
I follow him along a path, that, if I remember correctly, will lead us around the building to the front door. The plant life around us almost obscures what was once a broad sidewalk. It is impossible to avoid all the brambles as we walk past, but I try, shuffling to one side or the other to evade the thorns.
We round a corner and pass what I think must have been a raspberry bush. The branches are all bent and cracking from the weight of its many overripe berries. Flies buzz around the fetid red flesh. In the past, those berries would have fallen off the bush long before this point.
John looks back, sees me gagging and asks, “Why are you making that noise?”
I answer, “The smell. I can’t help it,” before another spasm overtakes me.
We walk on, but the memory of this place back when those berries were first fruiting haunts me. This space was intended to be another kind of laboratory, a source of specimens, but I always thought of it as a retreat from work. It was my refuge from the sterile white lab and the punishing hours I spent working there. When my hands were shaking from exhaustion or my brain was too tired and muddled to analyze anymore results, I would step outside and draw deep breaths of fresh air. I would stroll down these paths and relish the feeling of moving my body and resting my mind. I certainly wasn’t ever thinking of the connection between my research and the plants that I passed.
I don’t think John was ever so short-sighted. He never seemed to stop examining the world around him. If I ever spotted him in this garden, he was always leaning over to look at things growing close to the ground. I can only guess what must have happened to him. I know my former bosses decided to test the fruits of my research. John must have still been working here when it happened.
I bump into John’s back. He has abruptly stopped. His eyes are focused on a log bearing mushrooms ahead of us.
They are thriving in this new, foul environment. Judging from their fan-like shape it looks like they may have been oyster mushrooms, a common culinary species, before contamination. Now each mushroom is the same size as, or larger than, my head.
John reaches out and breaks off one of the caps. The loud snap makes me flinch. He examines it, turning it over and over in his hand. John was a mycologist before, so it makes sense that he wants to look at some fungi. The fact that he is examining anything gives me hope. If he is capable of expressing curiosity, it may be possible to cure him.
So it is with reluctance that I say, “Look, I’m not sure we really have time for this…”
There is a sudden rustling in the bushes, and I instinctively grab John’s arm and duck down. John drops the mushroom carelessly and turns his languid gaze to my face.
I am unsure what is causing that noise, but knowing the effect that my research had upon the plants, I fear an animal is following us. Or something that was once an animal.
Still holding John’s forearm, I back away from the bushes, walking slowly to avoid making any sound. I bump into the wall, and I put my hand back to brace myself. My palm meets smooth metal, rather than the building’s rough stucco, and I turn in astonishment. I have found the building’s front door.
I forget everything for a moment, and turn to tug on the doorway with both hands. The door remains locked. I try slamming into the door to break it open and nearly break my shoulder. I wish I knew how to pick locks. I wish I had dynamite to blow the door open. I need to get inside, and I do not have much time.
I am still tugging on the door handle, cursing, when John bumps into me and knocks me down.
I look up at him as he continues to back away, and I ask, “Where are you -”
A giant paw lands on the door, creating a huge boom as the animal’s weight slams into the metal. I scramble to my feet and stare in horror at the silvery claws scraping away right where my head was a few seconds ago. The beast turns and snarls at us.
It feels like John is tugging on my hand. I turn back, and realize his weight is pulling me back because he has stopped running. Out of breath now, I slow to a walk and let him go.
We are still on the path. We must have stuck to the beaten ground instinctively as we ran away. At this point the path is several meters away from the walls, and from this vantage point I can see that some of the building is missing. A large piece of ceiling and sidewall has rotted away, leaving open space in place of the building’s corner.
I leave the path and jump into the brush, running again. I have to stop and wrestle with vines blocking my way, and kick the bushes blocking me until I create a hole I can get through. John follows me, but he does not move to help. Finally, I reach the back of the building and discover an open air cathedral.
The gaps in the walls and high ceiling let in many spotlights of light. This hallway was ugly under flickering florescent lights, but now the sunlight makes this institutional corridor almost pleasant. My shoes make noise against the tile floor, and then fall silent again as I reach sections where the tile has given way to dirt and wild grasses. I reach a point where the building is more hole than wall. Here, almost the entire exterior is gone, but some interior walls still extend out, dividing the ruins of what were once individual labs. I step over a knee-high coiled mass of vines in order to enter one of these labs.
I turn to John, asking, “Did you know this was here?”
He doesn’t respond, as usual, but I’m too happy to care. I walk over to the cracked counter, still cluttered with a microscope, a bunsen burner and various beakers. I pull open the attached drawers and cabinets. This station seems to contain everything that I will need, neatly bottled and labeled. Is that handwriting mine? Or does it belong to someone else, someone like John who can no longer write?
A branch snaps, somewhere in the forest. I drop the bottle and move quickly to drag John closer to me. The beast steps over the vines and looks right at us. The fur around its mouth is dark with blood and drool.
I glance around and notice a large fire extinguisher lying on the ground to my right. I edge sideways, dragging John with me. The beast does not move its head to follow us. Instead, it keeps staring straight ahead. It seems confused.
I pick up the metal container. I’m tired of being chased.
“Aaaah!” I scream as I swing the metal. I’m surprised at how easy it is; the beast never even turns before sinking to its knees. Then it falls over and I notice how much blood there is.
“You killed it,” John says.
I am stunned. I’ve always hated violence.
“Well,” I snap, “why did it have to attack us? The chemicals they released didn’t cause aggressive behavior.”
“It was hungry,” John says simply as he sinks to the ground and starts clawing at the beast’s side. He pulls up a bloody piece of meat.
“Oh, god!” I cry. “Stop that! John, look you may not remember this but that’s dangerous, and, and well, wrong and you should stop it…” I trail off and stare sadly at the back of John’s bobbing head.
I march back to the counter and stuff bottles into my coat pockets, trying to ignore the sounds coming from that corner of the room. I’m leaving. I’m not going to stand around here any longer, I need to get back and I don’t have much time…
I stumble back towards the path, and this time nothing follows me. I break into a run when I see the gate and the sunshine behind it.
On the other side of the gate, a man waits, leaning on his truck. He has greasy hair, a few days worth of stubble on his face and a gold chain. His leather jacket does not quite conceal his gut. I am annoyed at the necessity of dealing with someone who looks like such a criminal.
His eyes widen when he notices me on the other side of the gate.
“I didn’t expect you to come from that direction.” He shoots the lock off the gate so I don’t have to clamber over the top again.
“You’re late,” he drawls.
“I tried to hurry.”
We are interrupted by a harsh bird-like caw. The man turns to stare off in the distance, resting his hand on his gun. The sound is faint and faraway, but it makes me shudder to imagine its source.
The man turns back to me with a smile on his face. “Things sure are a lot more exciting these days, aren’t they?” he says.
Crazy and a criminal. “Can we wrap this up and get the hell out of here?”
“Oh, don’t be so grumpy. All this green stuff is kind of pretty, its got me in a sunny mood.” He notices my unbelieving stare and shrugs. “Alright, let’s see what you got.”
I pull bottles out of my jacket and lay them out in piles.
I point at the first pile and say, “These three together will make a powerful explosive.” I point at the next group. “These two, when mixed, will make a gas that is dense enough to conceal your movements. But you should be careful; the gas will produce small amounts of neurotoxins and become dangerous after a few minutes.”
“Well, thanks for the warning,” he says as he leans over to collect the bottles.
“Where’s my payment?” I ask.
He reaches in his pocket and hands me my money. I count it, feeling the whisper of paper. I’m amazed that we can still use these bills, considering all the other trappings of civilization that we have lost. I can still trade them in places, though, once I get far away from this cursed spot.
Money in hand, I look at back at the crumbling building behind the gate. John is back there somewhere, in the building where I used to avoid asking questions.
The criminal has collected his bottles and is climbing into his truck to leave.
“Wait,” I say. “What are you going to do with those? Why do you need weapons?”
He turns on the engine. “Ah b’lieve,” he says, “that is none of your business.”
He doesn’t offer me a ride. I’m not sure where I’m headed, anyway, but I guess I should start walking. I should at least get out of this forest. The bird-thing’s noise has started to get a little louder.
Mireille Wells is a young author enjoying the bohemian life in Portland, OR. Her short story “Red Shoes” was published in the April 2011 issue of The Pedestal Magazine. Another of her stories, “Perception” will appear in an upcoming issue of The Waterhouse Review. She has traveled to four continents, and now she uses her travels as inspiration. She currently at work on a novel set in modern Egypt and several short stories.