Authors: Alexandra Oliva
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Literary Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Psychological, #Dystopian, #TV; Movie; Video Game Adaptations
The contestants collect their instructions. The host waves to get their attention as cameramen creep into position carefully out of one another’s shots. Minutes are reduced to seconds. The host shouts, “Go!”
Tracker lopes forward, his eyes settled on some distant object. Rancher strides his easy stride. Zoo grins and starts counting to herself as she walks with her compass held perpendicular against her chest. Cheerleader Boy looks around, then studies his map and compass, unsure. Waitress turns in a circle and makes brief eye contact with Biology, who shrugs.
Watching the others is Engineer. He wears his maroon-and-brown-striped bandana around his neck like Rancher’s, but it looks very different on this gangly, bespectacled young Chinese American man. Engineer has never rushed into anything in his life, excepting a few nights in college when the liberal application of alcohol led to his breaking character. Once he streaked across campus. It was 4 a.m., and other than the friend who issued the dare, only two people saw him. Engineer prides himself on this memory, on his spontaneity in that moment. He wishes he could be spontaneous more often. That’s why he’s here—a long-pondered decision to put himself into a situation that will require spontaneity. He wants to learn.
Engineer looks at his instructions: a series of bullet points. “One hundred thirty-eight degrees,” he says. “Forty-two paces.” He twists the compass housing, matches a small tick mark just shy of the 140-degree indicator to a line at the front of the compass. He doesn’t know how long a pace is supposed to be, but will experiment until the answer becomes clear, as it quickly will.
The twelve contestants disperse like gas molecules to fill the space of the field.
Tracker stops at the tree line and peers into the branches above, then launches himself into the air—grabbing a stout branch with both hands. He pulls himself up into the tree. All of the contestants who are facing his direction—seven of them—stop to watch, but Zoo and Air Force are the only ones who will be shown to viewers. Zoo widens her eyes, impressed. Air Force raises an eyebrow and shakes his head, less so.
Tracker drops from the tree, landing softly on his feet in the grass below. In his hand there is a red flag. He doesn’t want to leave a trail, not even the trail he is intended to follow. He stands straight, tucks the flag into his pocket, consults his instructions and compass, and heads toward his second control point.
Black Doctor struggles to find his first control point. His mistakes are twofold.
His first mistake: After setting his compass to the noted 62 degrees and turning to face that direction, he sets his gaze to the ground and starts walking. He doesn’t want to miss his flag if it’s hidden in the long grass. A reasonable concern from a reasonable man. But it’s a proven if inexplicable fact that people are incapable of walking in a straight line while blindfolded, and Black Doctor is all but blindfolding himself by looking at the grass. With each step he veers slightly to the right, just far enough to take him off course.
His second mistake: He counts each step as a pace, instead of following the and-one-and-two cadence of orienteering. When Black Doctor reaches what he believes is his intended stopping point, he finds nothing but more grass and a low-growing bush. He pauses to observe the others and sees Air Force and Rancher find their flags. He sees Zoo find her flag. He notes that all three did so at the edge of the field, whereas he is only halfway across. He takes his bearing, looks at a tree, and then walks straight toward it.
He will find his mustard-colored marker not in that tree but one tree to the left, and he will double the amount of paces noted on his instructions for each of the following control points.
Biology and Asian Chick will learn similarly, as will Engineer and two white men so far shown only in flashes—the tall one notable for his red hair, the other not notable at all.
Waitress and Cheerleader Boy will not learn. They will putter about the field, growing increasingly frustrated. Four times, Waitress returns to her violet marker and stalks off in roughly the correct direction, first muttering, then yelling, “One-two-three-four…,” stopping at forty-seven, turning circles, and tossing her hands toward the sky. She’s worn a crop circle in the grass with all her pacing.
She sits, and Cheerleader Boy, equally at a loss, leaves his path and approaches her. “I think we’re doing it wrong,” he says.
?” She waves him away. Cheerleader Boy seems like someone she might like in real life, but here he’s clearly a handicap. She knows no one will help her if he’s hanging about, needing help too.
The host is conspicuously absent from the shot. He’s been told to step aside. He’s checking his phone, expecting an email from his agent.
Tracker has reached his fourth flag and is in the lead. Air Force, Rancher, and Zoo have each found three. Biology stands beneath her second, looking, looking, and then with a smile seeing.
Successes pass quickly; there’s much to cover in the premiere, and successes aren’t what viewers want to see.
Engineer stumbles and catches himself against a tree; a branch slaps him in the face. He recoils and rubs at the sting.
After twenty-three minutes—or, depending on one’s perspective, eight including a commercial break—Tracker finds his red box. He opens it, sees the red-wrapped package and a slip of paper. He reads the paper only as confirmation. He has deduced the Challenge’s finishing point from the path of the control points. Two minutes later, he steps for a second time into the field.
Waitress and Cheerleader Boy see him, and for an instant Tracker is surprised. He cannot believe that these two have beaten him. And then Cheerleader Boy says, “You’re kidding me,” and Tracker realizes they haven’t yet left the field at all.
“Well done,” says the host, returned from the off-camera netherworld. He shakes Tracker’s hand. “You will learn your reward when everyone has returned. For now, you have a choice. You can relax, or you can help others in need.” He nods toward Waitress and Cheerleader Boy. Waitress is mired in gloom, and Cheerleader Boy is frustrated to the point of anger.
“Uh,” says Tracker, his first word on camera outside of pre-taping interviews. He doesn’t want to help his competitors, but they both look so pathetic he finds it difficult to believe either could ever become a threat. “Count two steps as one and keep the compass flat,” he tells them, familiar with the mistakes of beginners. “And look straight ahead, not at your feet.”
Waitress’s eyes widen as though her mind has been truly, fully blown; Cheerleader Boy rushes to his pink stick.
Air Force steps into the field. About a hundred feet to his right, only a few seconds behind, so does Zoo. Both hold their colored boxes, dueling shades of blue.
“First one to me!” calls the host. Zoo and Air Force dart toward him.
Air Force takes an easy lead, and then his right foot strikes a depression and he jolts into a hop-skip as pain shimmies through his turned ankle. He slows, favoring the foot. Zoo does not see this; she is in an all-out sprint. She reaches the host well ahead of Air Force.
“I found it!” calls Waitress from the far end of the field. A moment later Cheerleader Boy has found his first flag too.
“Those two are just starting?” asks Zoo, breathing hard and pushing her glasses up her nose. Tracker nods, looking her over. She looks fit enough. A contender, perhaps. He’s noted Air Force’s sudden limp, and while he hasn’t dismissed the man, he’s moved him down a notch in his consideration.
Zoo’s microphone pack is prodding the small of her back uncomfortably after her run. She fixes it, then turns to Air Force. “You okay?”
Air Force mutters that he’s fine. The host is trying to decide if he should call for an EMT. Air Force is clearly in pain, but he is just as clearly trying to ignore that pain. And he’s still on his feet. The host was told to reserve medical assistance for emergencies. This, he decides, is not an emergency. He unnecessarily informs Zoo and Air Force that they are the second and third to finish, then stands his post, waiting for the others while the first three exchange names and make small talk that will not be shown. Zoo does most of the talking.
Rancher is the next to arrive, an oak leaf speared on his right spur. He’s followed closely by Biology. Five minutes later, Engineer appears, and then Black Doctor, who blinks at the field in surprise. He hadn’t realized his instructions were effectively taking him in a large circle. Asian Chick and the red-haired man race for eighth place.
The red-haired man wins, and he hunches over to catch his breath. He’s dressed in plain outdoor clothing with his lime-green bandana tied above his elbow like a tourniquet. But he’s wearing Goth-style boots, and a heavy gold cross dangles on a chain next to his compass. The camera zooms on the cross, and then—a pre-taped statement, because the current shot cannot express this man’s essence.
He is dressed in what appears to be—what is—a black graduation gown with a hand-stitched white collar. His coppery hair is gelled, and curls upward like flames. “There are three signs of demonic possession,” Exorcist says. His voice is a grating, self-important tenor. He pokes his index finger toward the ceiling and continues, “Abnormal strength, like a little girl overturning an SUV, which I’ve seen.” A second finger flips up to join the first. “A sudden understanding of languages the individual has no right knowing. Latin, Swahili, what have you.” Three fingers. “Having knowledge of hidden things…like a stranger’s name or what’s locked in a safe you’ve got no reason to know about.” He retracts his fingers, reaches down the neck of his robes, and pulls out the golden cross. “Aversion to the sacred is a given, of course. I’ve seen flesh smoke at the touch of the cross.” He rubs his thumb tenderly along the charm. “I’m not an
exorcist, just a layman doing the best I can with the tools I got. By my reckoning, I’ve sent three true demons from this mortal plane, and I’ve helped some two dozen folks who
they were possessed banish an inner demon of a more metaphorical nature.” He smiles and there’s something in his eyes—some will think he doesn’t believe himself, that he’s playing a part; others will think he’s truly delusional; a special few will see their own reality in the one he’s projecting.
“It’s my calling,” he says.
In the field, Exorcist huffs, rubs some sweat from his brow with his sleeve, and stands. He looks ordinary enough here, but he’s been cast as the wild card, the one whose antics will be used for filler as necessary, and to test the patience of the other contestants. He knows this, has embraced this. He is counting on viewers appreciating the brand of crazy he does best. His uniqueness will be revealed to the others in about an hour, and each and every one of the other contestants will have a thought—not an identical thought, but close enough—a thought along the lines of: I have to be in the woods with this nutjob for
A few minutes after Exorcist’s big finish, Banker comes in, the last of the contestants to receive a close-up. He has dull brown eyes and hair, and a nose like the host’s but bigger. His black-and-white bandana is a wide headband, and askew. Banker has been cast as filler; his job alone means most viewers will root against him, thinking he doesn’t need the money, doesn’t deserve it, that his presence on the show is proof of the endless greed systemic to his profession. He’s a swindler, a parasite, as scrupleless as a carpetbagger.
Banker can be crammed into this stereotype, but it doesn’t fit him. He grew up the eldest son of middle-class Jews. Many of his childhood peers spent their adolescence in a haze of pot and apathy, but Banker worked hard; he studied; he earned his admission to the Ivy League. The company he’s worked for since finishing his MBA thrived through the recession, was not a cause. They match a large portion of Banker’s charitable giving, of every employee’s charitable giving, and not just for the tax break. Banker is tired of defending his career. He’s here on sabbatical, to challenge himself and learn new skills, to escape the anti-elitist ire of those who say they want their kids to get into the best schools and choose rewarding careers but then resent any adult who is the grown outcome of a child who accomplished precisely that.
Twenty-eight real-time minutes after Banker finishes, Waitress finds her way back to the field. The host is napping under an umbrella. Most of the contestants are chatting, bored and hot in the sun. They acknowledge Waitress’s arrival tepidly. “I was expecting this to be more exciting,” says Asian Chick. “Same here,” agrees Biology. Tracker’s eyes are closed, but he’s listening. About five minutes later, Cheerleader Boy sulks into the field with his pink box. No one greets him. Even Waitress feels like she’s been waiting forever.
The on-site producer rouses the host, who straightens his shirt, runs a hand through his hair, and then stands sternly before the contestants, who are quietly arranged in a line reflecting the order in which they finished. “Night is approaching,” says the host. A true statement, always, but it strikes Tracker as odd; he has a strong sense of time. He can feel that it’s only three o’clock.
The host continues. “It’s time to talk supplies. There are three main concerns in wilderness survival: shelter, water, and food. Each of you has a wrapped package marked with the symbol for one of these.” In succession, viewers will be shown etchings of a minimalist tent—like a capital
but without the horizontal bar—a water droplet, and a four-tined fork. “The rules of the game are simple: You can keep your package or trade it for someone else’s—without knowing what’s inside.
“Except for our winner,” says the host, indicating Tracker, “who gets the advantage of opening three items before making his choice. And our loser”—he turns to Cheerleader Boy—“who will have no choice at all.” A white-elephant gift exchange, more or less, except that a contestant’s life could depend on which item he or she chooses—or so the producers would have viewers believe. The irony being that while no one will believe this, it will in at least one case become true.