The Wilderness — Sadie Maddock

Beatrice slammed the book shut with a satisfied thud. It’s almost time. She crossed to the window and peered out at the sun-drenched afternoon. The windows from the array of apartments across from her reflected the sunlight, forcing Beatrice to squint and avert her eyes. She dialed Jasper for the fifth time that day, and her hands shook—whether with agitation or anticipation she didn’t know.  

“You’ve reached the home of Jasper Beane. I’ve got caller ID. I’ll call you back.”

She dialed again.

And again.

“Chill out,” he answered after the sixth ring. “I was taking a dump.”

“Who said you’re allowed to do that?” Beatrice teased.

“What’s it now? I thought we’d gotten everything covered.”

Beatrice could picture him poised in the armchair by his bed, holding the ridiculous landline receiver nonchalantly against his ear. Always so calm and collected, even on the cusp of such momentum.

“You haven’t forgotten anything?” she asked for the fifth time that day.

“You’ve gotta remember, I’ve been eligible for eight months now. That’s a lot of time to prepare.” Jasper adopted a patronizing tone, but it was just over the top enough that Beatrice could tell that all was in jest.      

“Why in the world you decided to wait for me, I will never know,” she said.

“Kindred spirits gotta stick together, kid. Eight months is nothing, and we’ve got one hell of a payoff waiting for us.”

Beatrice waited for the click that signified the end of the conversation before she lowered her cell and tossed it on the couch. She smiled.

Jasper’s silence in the car was indication enough that he was cowed by the situation just as much as she was. He drove, and together they watched the endless expanse of metropolis blur by. The buildings were all the same, and to a certain extent, Beatrice couldn’t help but think the people were too. Packed like chocolate bunnies, staring out of their cellophane windows at rows and rows of more chocolate bunnies, just waiting for something to happen to take them away from the bright lights of the grocery store aisle. Minutes turned into hours. The sprawling commercial district disappeared with a flash as the skyscrapers of the business district took over. The buildings get bigger before they get smaller, Beatrice reminded herself. Lulled by the monotony of the landscape, she dozed off.

Upon waking, she wiped the crust from the corner of her mouth and rubbed her bleary eyes. The car was stopped at a gas station, and Jasper was filling up. She reached over the driver’s seat and cracked open the door.

“Hey Beane,” she said. He glanced at her over his shoulder. “One tank won’t get you there.” Jasper nodded and winked at the familiar mantra.

A pee, a snack, and a quick stretch later, and they were back on the road.

“Y’know,” Jasper said. “Sometimes I think my parents had me just so they would be allowed to live so close to it, to have more time inside.”

As a kid, everything had been so simple. Weekend trips spent going inside the Terrarium were as regular of a routine as classes during the week. And there was none of this road trip bullshit. When Beatrice was a kid, her family lived within half an hour of the Terrarium. That was the gift bestowed upon children, a reward for their innocence, and parents benefited vicariously. As soon as she had turned thirteen though, her family was made to move away due to the ordinances established by the childhood clause.

“I can’t say I haven’t thought about doing the same thing myself,” Beatrice said. She glanced sideways at Jasper to gauge his reaction. His face remained motionless, his eyes on the road ahead. She continued, “It doesn’t quite seem fair to the kid though, I suppose.”  

The sky began to dim, but the buildings on either side of the road still created a corridor, and the lights from the windows and the street lamps lit the street like a grocery store aisle. All those chocolate bunnies.

“Need me to drive?” Beatrice asked. Jasper just shook his head, so she allowed herself to close her eyes and wait for sleep to return to her.

“Bee! Check it out,” Jasper called her awake. Disoriented, she looked at him, then followed his gaze out the window.

“Woah,” she said.

The skyscrapers had dropped off as quickly as they had risen. Jasper and Beatrice had made it back into a residential sector. Rather than the high-rise, efficiency apartment buildings of home though, the buildings that surrounded them were houses. The buildings get smaller before they disappear.  

“Can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a house,” Jasper muttered.

“I remember exactly the last time I saw a house,” Beatrice replied. At thirteen, she had sat on her knees in the backseat of her parents’ car, looking out the back window, and watching her childhood shrink into the past. Now, seeing the glowing lights in the windows, Beatrice could feel the nostalgia taking over, and with it, a jealousy towards the kids she knew were snug in their beds in those houses. She blinked several times to refocus herself.    

The buildings were still pressed so closely together that someone could reach from the window of one house to the window of another, but to be able to see over the tops of the houses to the sky beyond was a precious change of scenery.

“I can’t wait to be able to see the stars again,” Jasper said.

Beatrice spent the rest of the trip with her eyes peeled, taking in the surroundings. She rolled down her window and let the wind buffet her face and dry out her eyes. The air was already changing, and each breath Beatrice took seemed lighter than the last one.

They could see it coming from hundreds of feet away–a black darkness that could have been the edge of the world. The buildings just stopped, and beyond them was. . . nothing. When they were almost upon it, Jasper slowed the car to a reverent crawl.

“Ready?” He looked at her.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Jasper pressed down on the gas, and they lurched forward. The darkness engulfed them. Beatrice had to resist the siren song of the city that made her want to look back to the dwindling lights. The land is empty before you reach the Terrarium.

Driving in silence, the darkness was complete. Beatrice could not see past the meager range of the headlights, though she knew the only thing that daylight would reveal was a barren landscape of cracked red clay. Without the reference of city lights streaming by the window, Beatrice felt as if the car was suspended in motion. This turned the remaining half hour into an eternity. When the car finally rolled to a stop in a large gravel lot, Beatrice burst outside in a fit of giddiness.  

She looked up, as she felt Jasper appear beside her. Together they stared at the sky, awestruck. Beatrice Owens had not seen the stars in six years. She had been afraid that her expectations would get ahead of her, but the night sky didn’t fail to take her breath away.

“Where are we?” Jasper said.

“We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore, Beane,” she replied.

Sky above and earth below, exerting pressure to maintain their delicate equilibrium. Beatrice felt lost in between, too small to maintain her place in the balance. Just when she thought she couldn’t handle it anymore, Jasper reached out his hand which she took in hers, and together they maintained their ground.

“Just the beginning, Bee,” he said.

The trunk of the car creaked open, and Beatrice and Jasper unloaded their packs. Beatrice took a last look at the pile of books still remaining in the car. It felt wrong to leave them behind.  

“Dead weight,” Jasper said, as he slammed the trunk shut.

Together, they traversed the parking lot. It was almost full, but the number of cars still seemed paltry compared to home. Soon enough, Beatrice spied a spot of light glimmering in the near distance, marking their destination, and the next step in their journey.

The office itself was a tiny, squat building, with dark vinyl siding and no windows. Behind it, the immense steel walls of the Terrarium rose out of the gloom, dwarfing the office completely. The domed glass roof that was supported by the walls was too high up to glimpse. A solitary porch light marked the office in space.

After standing on the stoop for several moments, Jasper was the first to work up his courage and knock heavily on the office door. His knock went unanswered. In the throes of this nervous tension, Beatrice giggled and Jasper followed suit. They banged on the door until their already-dry knuckles cracked. Still, no one came. Beatrice slid to the ground, and leaned back, resting on her pack. She pulled out her cell to check the time. 3:28 am.

“We don’t have time for this shit,” she said. “I turn nineteen in exactly 37 minutes.”

“We’re here,” Jasper tried to reassure her. “If we’ve got to eat the cake in the parking lot outside, so be it. We’ll be in soon enough.”

“But we planned it so carefully. We did everything right; we have everything worked out, every little thing. It’s just not fair.”

“Remember, kid. My birthday was eight months ago now. If I can wait eight months, then you can wait a few extra minutes,” he said as he plopped down beside her.  She just glared at him. Sometimes his incessant positivity, or need to contradict, or whatever it was, infuriated her. She scooched farther away from him, but Jasper didn’t even notice, which fed into her resentment even more.

Never able to sit still for long, Beatrice began to wander around the lot, making footprints in the gravel. Even the satisfying crunch of the rocks beneath her feet was a nice change from the usual unending asphalt. The wind bit into her and gave her goosebumps, but she didn’t feel like digging through her pack for a coat, and she wasn’t quite ready to talk to Jasper again. He called to her.

“What?” she called back.

“I found a doorbell.”

“A doorbell?”

“Yes. C’mon,” he said.

Excitement got the best of her, and Beatrice forgot about pouting. She dashed back to the office door and heaved her pack on her shoulders. Reaching past Jasper, she pushed the hidden doorbell before he got the chance, standing on her tiptoes to reach the button on the uppermost rim of the doorframe.

“I can’t believe I didn’t remember that from being a kid,” Beatrice said.

“There’s so many things I didn’t pay attention to as a kid.” The door unlocked with a click, and they pushed their way into a warmly lit waiting room.   

“We may make it inside for your birthday after all,” Jasper said.

Five minutes later, and all the entrancing progress of making it into the office had been washed away by a wave of pure exasperation. Jasper and Beatrice were both trying to reason with a crisp, middle-aged man sitting behind a desk, and separated from them by a smudged, Plexiglas window.     

“If you go inside now,” he repeated, “you’ll be granted access according to your status as a person of eighteen years of age without a guardian. You’ll have to remain in The Park; I cannot yet grant you access to The Wilderness.”

Beatrice wanted none of The Park. It was a segmented section of the Terrarium, an arbitrary way to teach youth their place, and it didn’t possess half the wonder or scope of The Wilderness. The Park was not the reason Beatrice had come this far. The Park was not the reason Jasper had waited eight months so Beatrice could join him.

“She turns nineteen in fifteen minutes. Come on, man. We’re not trying to make you cut corners here, we just need to get to The Wilderness,” Jasper said.

“Then she can fill out the paperwork in fifteen minutes. I think I’ve made myself clear.” His tone meant to be decisive, but Jasper wasn’t ready to relent. He tried a different tact.

“It’s been six years since we’ve been inside. Can’t you see that we’ve been waiting for this?” Jasper placed both hands on the table and leaned in as close as he could without bumping into the glass.

“The ordinances state very clearly —” the crisp man began, but Beatrice cut him off.

“How’d you even get a job here? Isn’t hiring supposed to get more competitive the closer you are or some shit?”

Her outburst marked the end of the conversation.

The two of them sat seething on the couch, glaring at the man behind the desk. The couch was too fluffy. It sucked Beatrice down, and she struggled to remain rigid and put-off. She wouldn’t let herself look at the clock, but she could hear the ticks counting down the seconds as she wasted the few precious moments left after so much careful planning.

Jasper finally tapped her on her shoulder.

“It’s time,” he said.

Thrilled to be rid of the crisp man, the waiting room, and all the paperwork they entailed, Beatrice and Jasper stood in front of the final door, annexed behind the rest of the office. Travel exhaustion bent their shoulders and weighed their eyelids, but the moment of such anticipation and preparation had finally arrived.

Beatrice pressed her thumb to the scanner first, then Jasper did the same. The little door in the metal wall slid open soundlessly.

The air from inside seeped out of the doorway, and reached Jasper and Beatrice as they stood on the brink of the two worlds. Though she couldn’t identify the scents, the smell and quality of the air immediately took her back to being a kid. Each breath was rich, sharp, and refined, all at the same time. Beatrice sighed. She felt the moisture that signified a coming rain, and she felt tears welling behind her eyes.

When she opened her eyes and emerged from her initial reverie, she saw that Jasper had already taken the first steps inside.

“Wait up,” she chastised.

“Catch up,” he said without looking back.

And with that, she took her first step onto the pine-needle carpet of the forest at the far edge of The Wilderness.

It became immediately apparent that they wouldn’t reach their planned destination that morning. Within the first fifty feet, Jasper had flung himself on the ground to feel the earth beneath him. He rolled onto his back to look up above at the canopy and the stars, and soak in his overwhelming surroundings. Beatrice had no choice but to join him. She still had two things on her agenda for this first early morning though, and she wouldn’t let Jasper delay her too much.

“The river!” she exclaimed in rapture, as they made their way through the slender trees of the pine forest.

Beatrice could just barely see the waning moon’s reflection on the rippling surface. She dropped her pack, and surged towards it, stripping down as she did so. She squealed as she jumped, before even hitting the frigid water. The river surrounded her, and she paddled forward, biding time before resurfacing. When she finally did, Beatrice was met with water in the face from Jasper’s splash as he joined her to bob in the ripples.

The wind bit into them as they left the pine forest to emerge on a bald. Once again, Jasper flung himself on the ground to feel the grass and soil below him, but Beatrice was too antsy to join him this time.  

“We’re almost there,” she said, and dragged him to his feet.

Together, they trudged up the mountain, half-clothed, still wet from swimming, shivering. The dawn light was just beginning to fade into existence. They reached a peak, plopped their bags, and spun to take in the 360-degree view.

Jasper pulled out the lemon cake with mocha icing, smushed and mushy despite the care with which he had wrapped and packed it.

“Happy nineteenth to us both,” he said.

Together, they devoured the cake as they watched the sun rise in a spectacular display. Beatrice licked her fingers to taste the residue icing. The rain began to fall softly and drench the clothes that they had just barely managed to keep dry from swimming.

“Let’s never go back, ok Beane?” Beatrice said.

“Ok, Bee,” Jasper said.

If only, Beatrice thought. A week was enough. It had to be.