Gateways: “The Preserve” by Amalia King

Transcript: This next story comes from Amalia King who is a freelance non-fiction writer. She describes her style as “Non-fiction by day, absurd nerd feminist fiction by night.” This is not her first foray into fiction, she’s had two staged readings of short plays and we look forward to hearing more from her in the future. This is “The Preserve”

The dappled sunlight seeped through the green of the leaves and left a ghostly color on our clothes and skin. We lay on our backs, pressing into the soft earth. Errett’s stomach growled loudly, and I counted the hours since we had eaten last. A guilty knot formed in my gut at the thought of my insistence that we leave straight from The Workplace Complex. If we had stopped at The Home Complex first, we could have gotten real supplies and maybe even lifted some gear. As it was, we’d be braving the elements in a matter of hours. Errett rolled over to face me. “How many times have you come out here?” I closed my eyes. This was all my fault. “A few.” Errett made a soft sound. “How many is a few?” I rolled over and positioned my head so that it was facing directly into Errett’s, our noses almost touching. “You trust me, right? You agreed to come with me? I’m taking care of it. I know what I’m doing.” I had no idea what I was doing. Errett, however, was preoccupied with our surroundings and turned back to face the leaves overhead. My stomach gave a sick lurch. There was no plan, of course, except to wander deeper into The Preserve. It was foolish to think we wouldn’t be followed, but as neither of us had given any indication of leaving, I hoped it might be a while before our absence was noticed. We would need to start walking again soon. I gritted my teeth. A bird chirped overhead. We froze. “Briney, did you hear that?” Errett clambered up and moved quietly toward the tree where the bird sat. “I think that’s a bird.” I could see it, too. It looked very small, much smaller than in the pictures. I got to my feet and followed Errett. The bird cocked it’s head. It could see us, watching it from the ground. Errett whispered in my ear, with lips so close that the warmth rattled my hair. “We should back away, so it knows it’s safe.” Slowly and quietly, we inched backward until my heel touched the bark of a tree and we stopped, hearts pounding, pressing into each other and holding our breath. The bird watched us for a moment, then seemed to decide we weren’t a threat. It chirped again, and Errett inhaled sharply beside me. I could see its wings tucked into its plump side. I couldn’t remember if birds had fur or feathers. It looked soft and round. The bird chirped a third time. In the near distance, an answering chirp rang bright and clean. Errett spun wildly in the direction of the second call. The sudden movement startled the first bird into flight. Errett looked crestfallen.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There’ll be more.” We walked for hours. The deeper we went, the more species we encountered, species we’d only seen in our History of Biology classes, back in The Education Complex. Errett was delighted. I felt a strange warmth in my chest and couldn’t help my mouth from turning up at the corners, even though I knew we were in an increasingly serious situation. My skin was getting sticky and I could feel a raw rub on my little toe. I couldn’t bring myself to think about food yet. Small, flying insects whose names we could not remember buzzed past occasionally. One of them landed on Errett’s skin and pricked a tiny proboscis into a blood vessel. We watched in amazement as it drew up the blood, swelling slightly in size, and finally removed the needle and flew away. Errett kept gazing in proud wonder at the growing red mound it left in its absence. After a while, the magic began to wear off. Even Errett seemed to be losing interest in the new creatures, some of which we didn’t recognize at all. The light was changing, deepening in color, and the trees were growing closer together. I could hear Errett panting along just behind me. “How much farther is it?” A cold sensation crept up the back of my neck. “What do you mean?” I asked, trying to keep my voice casual. Errett caught up and fell into step beside me. “How much farther to where we’re going?” The knot of guilt tightened sharply behind my navel. “I told you, we’re just trying to get as far away as possible.” “But how much farther to the place where we stay tonight?” I glanced sideways and found Errett staring earnestly at me. I stopped walking and pawed some mud off one boot, then the other. “There’s not a specific place we’re staying tonight. We’re just going to walk until we’re tired and we’ll sleep there.” For the first time, Errett seemed nervous. “So there’s… there’s not a shelter or something?” I shook my head slowly from side to side. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Errett itching at the red mound. “I thought you had found a shelter, or made a shelter or something. Where have you slept the other times you came out here?” The silence rang, and I made my decision. “I’ve never slept outside before.” There was a flickering behind the shock on Errett’s face. “Y… you haven’t? Then how do you know what we’re supposed to do?” I pushed sweaty curls back from my forehead. “I don’t. I know as much as you.” Errett’s voice began to climb in pitch. “But Briney, I don’t know anything at all. Nothing.”

I took a deep breath. This was a moment I had been dreading for months. As I had begun to consider life as an Outsider, I had noticed that Errett, too, seemed out of place in The Habitat and might make a strong companion. Errett was weird, but curious and resourceful; a hard worker who approached problems directly. Early on, I had wondered if I was being too subtle. Sometimes, an honest voice inside me admitted, I had been intentionally vague about the extent of my inexperience. In truth, I had never even met an Outsider and had no idea how they managed in a world beyond The Habitat. My mind ticked quickly and I tried to appear confident, sighing nonchalantly. “If we had a plan, it could be found out. Not knowing is our cover.” Something had shifted in Errett’s face. There was a harder jawline, a lower brow. “You told me you knew what to do.” I was beginning to feel a little faint, whether from nerves or hunger I didn’t know. “Maybe I did. Let’s just stay focused and keep moving. There will be plenty of time to talk about this later.” Errett’s eyes were narrow. “I’m hungry. Where’s the food?” With resignation, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the two nutrient bars I had snatched from the cafeteria. Errett looked startled. “That’s it?” I sighed. “That’s all I had time to grab.” Errett began pacing back and forth. “This is starting to feel like a black hole” “What does that mean?” “Black holes really suck.” I threw the nutrient bar at Errett, who caught it easily. “Fine, go back if you want.” I meant it to sound defiant, but there was a quaver in my voice. Errett turned to me. “We can’t go back anymore. Neither of us.” It was true. Hearing the words outside my own head, they sounded bleak and eerie, rather than exhilarating. I looked up. Errett’s eyes had lost the sparkle I had grown accustomed to. “Then what should we do?” I asked. Errett blinked a few times and looked ahead. Our shoulders seemed to be growing wider, tenser, closer and more distant at the same time. “I guess we should keep walking until we’re tired, and we’ll sleep there.” Errett turned away from me and began walking deeper into the trees. The knot of guilt in my stomach was transforming into an all-encompassing shame. I fought my instinct to defend myself, to relentlessly seek Errett’s forgiveness. Instead, I put the nutrition bar back in my pocket, stomach rumbling, and followed my only friend into the darkening woods.

Rachel Granda Gluski is a Chicago based voice actor and movement professional. She currently enjoys working with radio play companies Starlight Radio Dreams and Locked into Vacancy Entertainment. She also performs every summer with the Bristol Renaissance Faire. When she’s not performing she enjoys being a huge nerd and hanging out with her cats.

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