Acts of Preservation


ago
5 min
169
readings
4
Finalist
Jury

Rachel Blythe is a writer and epidemiologist based in Oakland, California. Visit her at rachelblythe.com.

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Kyle jogged down the dock behind the Coast Guard station. Gage was already on the boat, his arms crossed, the motor running.

"What's the holdup?" Gage asked when Kyle reached him.

"Phone call."

Kyle, the newest member of the crew, stepped aboard, then offered a quick nod before Gage steered them toward the bay.

Normally, they wouldn't be going out this late, but someone claimed to have seen a boat belonging to the missing lobsterman, Dwight. It was the only lead so far—nobody had heard from him since the previous morning.

Kyle had never met Dwight and, if he was being honest, felt eager to get through this task, for a hot meal awaited him onshore. Earlier that day, a parishioner from First Congregational had stopped by the station to invite Kyle and Gage to their monthly pasta dinner. Even now, at this distance from the middle of the bay, Kyle could see the glowing lights from the church, the steeple's silhouette piercing the sky. He thought he could hear the voices carried on the wind from the basement where everyone gathered. He hoped to get back while there was still some of the famous ziti Gage had told him about. He could practically taste the slivers of fresh basil sprinkled over the dish. He imagined it would be the closest thing to his mother's cooking since moving to Maine two months ago.

"So, who called?" Gage asked

Kyle shrugged. "A scientist," he said, "asking if I'd seen a beetle at Great Wass."

***

Postdoctoral fellow Silvia Cahan wished she hadn't waited until the deadline to finish her paper. Yet here she was, three days away and compiling her notes from the previous summer's fieldwork. Silvia had already let her wife know she wouldn't be home until late, but she had decided to wait to share the good news: her initial results indicated a breakthrough in the field of toxicology.

The envenomation properties of this beetle were unlike any she'd witnessed in her career, which led her to wonder if it wasn't an entirely new family of beetles, one whose discovery would be tied to her name, fixing her accomplishments in perpetuity. But first there was the matter of validating her evidence.

The Coast Guard station had helped Silvia when she'd driven the two hours to Jonesport last summer, ferrying her out to the preserve across the bay. The crew had been a friendly bunch, but this Kyle person who had answered the phone today didn't recall their meeting. Regardless, Silvia described the beetle in detail ("like miniature lobsters," she joked) and advised him not to disturb one should he come across it.

"Not to worry," she assured him. "Their nests are far from town, on a remote part of Great Wass Island."

Silvia was about to ask one last favor when Kyle abruptly thanked her and hung up.

***

The moon illuminated the boat's path through the whitecaps. The water had to be thirty-six degrees, maybe colder, and Kyle wore several layers beneath his standard issue foul weather jacket and pants.

"There!" Gage called.

It matched the picture Dwight's friend had shared, with a red stripe around the hull. Kyle squinted to make out the name. Yes, that was it. The St. Francis

Gage shone his spotlight along Dwight's boat before navigating next to it. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Kyle leaped between the boats. Once aboard, he directed his flashlight along the gunwales for a trace of Dwight—perhaps a piece of clothing or a streak of blood—though what this might suggest, he wasn't sure.

"Dwight?" Kyle called. "You there?"

He heard his own shallow breath in response.

"How's it look?" Gage asked.

"Nothing damaged."

"So, what? He just disappeared into the woods?" Gage mused, looking past Dwight's boat at the island just beyond it.

Kyle shook his head, his search complete. "I don't know, man. Think we can call it a night."

Kyle leaned over the bow to check that the anchor was secure. They'd be back in daylight to tow the boat. Suddenly, he felt a hard pinch on his forefinger. He pointed the flashlight down and found an insect clinging to his skin. Unfazed, he shook his hand until the bug dropped into the water.

***

Silvia's eyes stung. She'd spent hours revising her methods section, in which she described how she tested the venom's toxicity on mice. Following intravenous administration of what she thought was a moderate dose, the mice had spun out, running frenzied circles around their cage until they lost their balance, collapsing into themselves one after another. The final mouse had given a small squeak before it, too, faded away. This had all occurred with exacting synchronicity, a performance that, upon revisiting her notes, left Silvia shaken by its implications.

After Silvia scoured the literature for a model that might explain what she'd observed, she realized she'd stumbled upon the rare scenario that all scientists fantasize about: the potential to alter her field's trajectory by way of a fluke. Silvia repeated the protocol, each successive experiment relying on a lower and lower dose. Each time, the mice responded the same.

Now, Silvia's gaze rested on the last vial of venom. It was thick, a ruby hue similar to the beetles' exoskeletons. In her results section, she had described the venom's efficiency at dilating the mice's blood vessels, how their vascular systems had lost control, their internal temperatures hurtling to impossible extremes.

She would need more venom to keep running tests, but the thought of harvesting beetles to acquire it was daunting. She wondered how much she should expect to sacrifice.

***

Back at the station, Kyle removed his jacket and stretched across the couch. It felt like a fire had ignited at the base of his spine. A deep, slow heat crawled up his back and swallowed his ribs.

"Aren't you coming to dinner?"

Kyle hadn't realized Gage was standing next to him. He tried to look up and wave him away, but his hand didn't lift properly. Even his eyelids weren't coordinating with each other.

"Tired," Kyle managed to mutter around his swelling tongue.

Gage studied Kyle's face for a moment, then turned. "You wimp. I'll see if I can make you a plate."

After Gage left, Kyle tried to rest. He hoped sleep would cure whatever illness had taken hold, but he was too uncomfortable. He looked at his finger, where a glossy purple welt rose beneath his skin, the flesh doughy and dense. He recalled the flash of an image from Dwight's boat, but thinking became harder the more he tried.

Kyle's feet were sweating. He removed his shoes, then his socks. He kept removing layers until only his boxers and undershirt—soaked through and plastered to his skin—remained. In his mind, the image of the bug appeared, but his memories were distorted. It became a flying creature with thorny, calcified wings that chattered—a low clacking sound recognizable to any lobsterman as the crustacean's scrambling feet.

Kyle managed to turn his head to the window, with its view of the bay's cool waters. Desire took over as he stumbled, barefoot, out the door. On the dock, he got onto his hands and knees. He pressed the tops of his legs against the boards, letting his torso hang over the dock's edge as he bent his head toward the water's surface. A wave washed over him. Lifting his head, he choked on saltwater, his throat raw. But his body felt cooler. He could finally tolerate the rising heat. Kyle leaned into the water once more, his eyes seeking the next wave that tunneled toward him. In the seconds before it pulled him under, he thought he heard Gage shouting his name.
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Lia Smith · ago
Strong writing, not a single false note. Poor Kyle. Dispatched so quickly. I hope this is an excerpt from a longer piece!

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