BY EMILY FINE
“HEY,” BEN calls out. He waves, then drops and glares down at his hand as though it betrayed him. Friendly gestures are anomalies in this competition.
“Hi,” I say, then return to arranging my kindling. The sun peeks over the mountains, a cold, pallid orb.
Last night, despite being burrowed deep inside my sleeping bag, shivers still racked my body. I imagined forfeiting, trekking back to base and sinking into a real bed in one of the heated trailers. But I couldn’t give up, not after a month in this frigid hell. If I could endure another week, I’d make it to the final round. Besides, I’d survived worse. Nothing topped the evening I walked in on my fiancé pressing another woman against the wall. Our wall. Thankfully, that image is a mere flash, all thoughts shrunk to pinpricks by the cold slithering deep inside me.
If I dropped out, what would I return to anyways? Defeat and a stripped house — half the closet empty, half the furniture, half the comings and goings that breathed life into our home. So, I stayed, hoping I survived the night.
There were 10 of us to start, now down to six. Our sites are spaced across a snowy alpine meadow, surrounded by a forest of towering pines. Even at this hour, the camera is on us. Max is on first shift, stalking between the camps like a scavenger hunting for scraps of human drama. The editors will probably string together my interactions with Ben, fabricating a slowly blooming romance. He’s attractive, for sure, and may even be my type — everything on full display, warm, rugged-looking. But the last thing on my mind is romance. In the tropical heat of the Jungle Season, I understand how love swiftly blossomed. But here, where survival is a matter of conserving sufficient energy for essential tasks while avoiding freezing to death? No, love has zero chance in this subzero terrain.
“I made a fire already. If you want to use it,” he says, meeting my eyes.
“Is that allowed?” I ask.
“Fire is free,” he answers with a shrug.
“Sure,” I say, surprising myself. I’m generally proficient at making fires and hate to rely on other contestants, but right now my hands are so stiff I’m not sure I’ll be able to strike a single match.
Ben’s camp is next to mine. Not an accident. Place the affable, handsome, single guy next to the broken-hearted bachelorette. I don’t like fulfilling expectations, but right now I don’t care. All I want is a hot bowl of oatmeal.
I like that this place does that to you, narrows your world to a succession of simple desires, strips your mind of the future. One step in front of the next, at least when the cameras aren’t aimed my way.
But now they are, and I’m keenly aware of the silence between us as we shuffle over to his fire, a small pot of water dangling from my hand. They’ll want words, glances between us. As if reading my thoughts, Ben looks my way, lips pursed.
“So,” he says.
“So,” I reply, the cold seemingly having zapped our ability to converse fluently.
But then he whispers, “How many times a day do you regret being here?”
“Five hundred and twenty-one,” I reply. He chuckles. Max’s boots crunch behind us.
“Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?” Ben asks and it’s my turn to laugh.
“I know a good psychiatrist when we’re back in town,” I say. He grins, deep smile lines showing beneath his thickening beard. When we near his fire, I deflate. It’s roaring. A veritable bonfire.
“You just took away my one chance at glory. I thought I was good at building fires.”
He smiles, biting his lip. I don’t begrudge him his pride. It’s the little things that matter here. A hot meal, a tidy tent, a pile of gathered wood.
I place my pot on a rock he’s arranged next to the fire, flames licking the side, then remove my mittens and splay out my hands, groaning in pleasure as the heat sinks in. When I look over, Ben is watching me with a faint smile. Something thaws deep inside me, just a fraction.
“The trick,” he says, breaking the silence and circling the fire until he’s next to me. “Is drying your next pile of wood by the fire, then covering it at night.”
I nod. After a moment of silence, I lean in and whisper, “So, what are you running from?”
He turns, eyebrows lifting. “Modernity mostly.”
I look him over. “I don’t believe you. If that was the case, you’d be in the wilderness on your own.”
“OK, you got me. Modernity and poverty. Although I hate these cameras.”
“Sounds about right,” I say. “Modernity and poverty.” I pull off the pot lid to find a rolling boil.
“You too?” he asks as I pour the oatmeal into the churning water.
“That and betrayal,” I admit. I’ve spoken too loudly because Max closes in. I turn and glare directly into the camera. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Maybe it’s the fire’s warmth or the relentless lack of privacy, but I blurt out, “Leave us the hell alone.” They’ll either bleep it out or omit the clip. Ben slaps his knee beside me and chuckles.
Shockingly, Max backs up, turns off the camera and holds up his other hand. “Just doing my job,” he says. “But I think I’ve got enough. I’ll leave you two alone for a bit.” He winks. He’ll come back around shortly to see if we’ve retreated to a tent, take a shot of any movements or sounds coming from inside. Maybe the editors will cut to a different tent, fabricating a tryst. Right now, I’m just relieved to see Max’s retreating back. I scoop the oatmeal into my mouth and suppress another groan.
“Is it working?” Ben asks.
“What? The oatmeal?”
“No, this,” he says, stretching his arm out and across our view. “Escaping betrayal.”
“Sometimes. There’s too much time to think though. To replay things. You know?”
“Yep,” he says, popping the P. “Do I ever.” He pulls off his hat and pushes his fingers through his auburn hair. An image flashes through my mind, my own fingers running through his hair. My cheeks warm.
“Can I show you something?” Ben asks, standing.
“I guess,” I mutter, reluctant to abandon the fire. But his open expression goads me along. It hasn’t snowed in days, but the pine branches still droop under the weight of marshmallowy clumps. The only sound is the snow groaning beneath our boots as we step into this winter tableau. Its soft, benevolent appearance is deceiving. You can only visit briefly before the wilderness extends its icy claws.
I’m about to ask where we’re going when the trees clear and the mountain looms ahead. A perfectly flat expanse splays out for about a half mile — a frozen lake, blanketed with snow. My mouth hangs wide.
Ben interrupts my reverie. “There’s more. Follow me.” He leads me forward for several more minutes, then drops to his knees and begins wiping the snow in wide circles. He lays down on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, and stares down through the ice.
“What are you doing?” I laugh.
“Come see,” he says, smiling. I obey, lying beside him.
The ice is as translucent as glass. The sun shoots straight through, illuminating the rocky bottom nearly 30 feet below. My body doesn’t recognize this anomaly, a wave of vertigo overtaking me as though I am standing at the edge of a cliff. I inhale deeply, then glance his way. Ben doesn’t notice for a second, nose resting against the surface.
Then he turns to me. “Right?” he says, a wide grin lighting up his whole face.
“Amazing,” I reply.
When they interview me afterwards, they’ll ask, “What was the turning point? When did you fall for him?” I’ll smirk and say it was the fire. “His impressive blaze.” For some reason, I won’t mention the lake, nor what I realized as I lay beside Ben on its icy surface — love might not flourish here, might not twist and twirl like wisteria, but there could be a beginning, a seed waiting only for the ground to thaw.
Emily Fine is a psychologist and author from Northampton, MA, U.S. Her time is divided between parenting (80%), working as a therapist (10%), and consuming or creating stories (40%). Apparently, she is either horrendous at math or masterful at multitasking.