“Survivor Summer”

The boy in the green sweatshirt has written “keep your daughters home tonight” on the note he gives Eva to pass to Doug French. She does pass it, while Mr. Houpt writes on the whiteboard: “Teens and Violence” in blue letters. No daughters need protection from Doug French, Eva would like to write in a note to someone, but she only knows Mia Huff, whose hair spikes like broken glass. Summer school is a very particular kind of hell.

“Teen violence is on the rise in America.” Mr. Houpt sputters and whistles like a gigantic teapot.

He hands out an article about bullying and writes an essay topic on the board. Eva draws a cartoon of Mr. Houpt as a teapot.

“Have any of you had experience with teen violence?” Mr. Houpt puts his hands on his hips, so his shirt tightens across his shoulders. “Who’s been bullied? Who’s bullied someone?”

Eva draws flames under Mr. Houpt the teapot. Mia’s voice rings like sunshine.

“I’ll be honest,” Mia says. “I’ve beaten up two girls in this room.” She points to Kenda Wells, recently emigrated from Ghana. “I kicked her ass.” Mia points again. “And, that one. She knows better than to mess with me now.”

Eva feels them looking, but she keeps drawing flames, then clouds of steam, then zigzag lines to indicate heat.

“Well,” Mr. Houpt splutters. Eva imagines his thoughts bubbling like boiling water. He passes the whiteboard marker from one hand to another. “Maybe we should hear from the other side. What was it like for you?”

Kenda gives a short, courteous reply, but Eva doesn’t look up, doesn’t even mumble. She will read the article, will write an essay, but she will never admit to anything.

***

Ira leaves for Fort Benning at the end of the summer. Each paycheck from the Getty Station adds another item to the pile of socks, Q-Tips, and undershirts at the foot of his bed. Their mother sews tags with the word “Falkenrath” into the backs of his underwear. Eva sits with her on the patio and watches her mother’s fingers manipulate the needle, watches the jar of sun tea darken on the railing.

“I don’t know why I want to put this name on everything,” Eva’s mother says. “Especially since it’s not even our name.”

What she means is that it is their father’s name. He lives in Virginia and has not sent a check since Ira’s fifth birthday. Her father had a beard and a gun, and Eva was not allowed to touch either.

“If someone I knew as a child tried to contact me,” her mother says, “they would never be able to find me under this name. It’s as though I no longer exist.”

What she means is that when Ira cuts his hair and crawls in the mud, if something happens and he becomes unrecognizable, the name will tell which home he belongs to.

“You don’t want to talk to anyone from your hometown anyway,” Eva says. What she means is that maybe Ira will change his mind.

Aside from the mound of basic training supplies in his room, nothing about Ira has changed since the envelope with the official seal arrived. His hair spills like honey over his shoulders, and Eva, whose hair frazzles into a million split ends, sometimes says snide things she doesn’t mean. Ira hasn’t lifted weights or gone jogging, hasn’t done any of the strength-building exercises in the green packet. Afternoons, Ira and Chesney go to the lake, where they throw the Nerf football and drink beer under the pine trees.

“You should be worried,” she tells him one night when he’s grilling hamburgers. “You’ve seen the boot camp movies.”

“Didn’t I just sit through your high school graduation?” He flips the meat. “I thought they taught you not to take television seriously.”

“They gave me a rolled up piece of cardstock at graduation. I thought you’d know that ceremonies don’t mean anything.”

They’ve never been a television family. Even last year’s Y2K scare couldn’t convince them to watch the news. They are not a family that has “shows”; no one ever leaves the TV yammering to the empty living room, and so, Eva is surprised when her mother brings up Survivor.

“It’s a new trend in television.” Her mother bites a thread. “They put people on an island and record them trying to survive. The last person left gets a million dollars.”

“What kind of people?” Eva asks.

Her mother shrugs, and the strap of her sundress falls from her shoulder. “People like us.” What she means is that there are only a few months left.

 

***

Mr. Houpt puts the three of them together: Kenda, Eva, Mia, and also Doug French because the groups are supposed to have four people. The worksheet tells them to explore and draw conclusions about the influence of television on teen violence. Doug French will talk about boxing and wrestling. Kenda will talk about the news. Mia will ignore Mr. Houpt’s suggestion to examine television coverage of the upcoming Bush/Gore election and focus instead on talk shows.

“Have you heard about that new Survivor show?” Mr. Houpt asks. “Which of you will talk about that?”

Mia swivels in her chair to whisper to Eva. “Did you know I’m dating Chesney’s brother? So you and I, we’re practically family now.” She has small teeth, like kernels of corn.

Eva copies the notes from the board and makes a to-do list in the margin. She will watch Survivor, will prepare a presentation, will write an essay, will clean the bathroom. She will make chocolate caramel muffins for Ira.

She will never smile at Mia Huff. In front of her, Mia’s silver hoop earrings dangle and bob above her shoulders. It would be easy to reach forward, to grab the metal and pull.

***

Each contestant brings a personal item onto the island. Most bring journals, bibles, photographs. The oldest woman brings a banjo. The first night, after they’ve laid down the rudiments of shelters, and the camera has panned to show the sunset and the ocean, the woman sings, the notes like small glass ornaments being shattered.

“Wow.” Their mother tucks her feet beneath her on the sofa. “That’s horrible.”

“I’d take a box of waterproof matches,” Eva says. “What’s the point of a journal?”

“I’d take a book about survival strategies,” their mother says.

“I’m sure they don’t let you take that stuff,” Ira says. “They probably don’t even tell you where you’re going.”

Neither team can start a fire. One team passes around a man’s eyeglasses, trying to magnify the sun onto a pile of palm fronds. Both teams compete in a challenge for flint. The camera alternates between shots of the winners around a glimmering fire, and the losers shivering on a dark beach.

“If I knew I were going on this show, I’d practice building a fire with no matches,” Ira says. “I’d pretend I needed glasses, and I’d make sure I knew exactly how to make a fire with them.”

Eva is curious to see how they decide who leaves the island. She keeps waiting for some hidden tally, a ranking of each contestant’s survival skills, and is disappointed when it comes down to a vote. Dramatic music plays as the host extinguishes the loser’s torch. The woman carries her banjo into the dark.

“I guess it’s realistic,” their mother says. “Aren’t the old ones usually first to go?”

“They should’ve kicked out that man with glasses,” Ira says. “He should know how to start a fire.”

“It’s probably harder than it seems,” their mother says.

Ira though, is adamant. “There’s no excuse for going into a situation without preparing for it.”

Eva exchanges a look with her mother.

“What?” Ira says. “What?”

***

Mia Huff is also in summer school for physics. When Eva goes home at noon, Mia has to go to the physics lab, has to conduct experiments with ramps and Slinkys.

“Mr. Barnett is the worst teacher ever,” Mia tells Eva. “It will be his fault if I fail again.”

“Just do the homework,” Eva says. And what she means is that Mr. Barnett gave her an A every semester she had him.

“What do you think?” Kenda Wells asks, meaning her essay.

“I don’t understand why you’re in summer school,” Eva says.

Kenda’s essay discusses violent conflicts in several African nations. Teen violence, she’s written, is by no means desirable. However, on a scale of violent acts, its impact is fairly minimal.

***

Wednesday, Ira brings free weights into the living room.

“Those are ancient.” Their mother frowns. “They belonged to your grandfather.”

Eva picks one up, feels the heft of it. When she hands it back, rust flecks her hands. Ira sits cross-legged on the floor and opens the green packet.

“Biceps, triceps, deltoids,” he reads, and Survivor begins.

Contestants compete for a snorkel and a harpoon, and Eva is surprised that no one is sunburned. Perhaps they are slathered in sunscreen off-camera. A man heads into the ocean with a spear. The caption tells viewers he is a lawyer, and Eva would have guessed from his doughy chest that he worked at a desk. She imagines fish seeing the dark silhouette of his body against the sun. He would look dead, and the fish would swim to him, would nibble his skin. He emerges, and the fish’s white bodies struggle, tails slapping the water.

Other contestants have caught and roasted some rats. A young college student with hair like grass chews on a bone.

Ira looks up from his crunches. “How hard can it be to make a fishing rod?” he asks the student on the television. Then he lies back down. “This sucks,” he says.

Eva wonders if the fish or the rats are endangered, and if the person with the camera would stop them from accidentally eating something poisonous.

That night they vote off an older man with unruly white hair. “We’re a family,” a woman with a mole on her shoulder tells the host. She brushes at a tear. “This is the saddest thing.”

“That’s not realistic,” Ira says. “That guy would’ve outlasted that girl for sure.”

“Definitely,” Eva agrees. What she means is maybe survival isn’t what they think it is at all.

***

The story, if Eva ever told it, would include a tire swing swaying, rider-less. It would include a slide the color of processed cheese and leaves piled on the ground, dry leaves that crackled underfoot like tiny bones.

She would explain how scratches don’t hurt at first, but hours later they smolder, burn ferociously for days.

She could explain how she’d planned to punch and snarl, but then her cheek scraped concrete. An oozing stickiness coated her lips, and she’d shuddered instead, felt her fierceness disappearing into a pain that seemed to belong to someone else’s stomach, another person’s body. The fierceness had gone, and she’d waited, waited two years now, hoping it would come back.

She would also describe the dull, ringing sound that she tried for months to identify. Would describe the night she sat up, bolted awake with the sudden recognition of the thud a flagpole makes when a person is shoved into it. That afternoon, after a long time among the leaves, she looked up to see Ira, felt him touch her arm where the scratches were, felt more thankful than she’d ever felt, and more angry.

“Did you fight back?” he’d asked, and she’d wished him away.

Eva is sure that Mr. Houpt would not understand, would write “relevant?” next to it with his green pen, but she would explain how the cable clanged against the metal flagpole. The wind blew and the cable clanged, and this happened before and during and after. She guesses it is happening now.

***

Chesney comes over on Wednesday nights. He hauls a straight-backed chair from the kitchen and tips it against the wall.

“Eva,” he says, his voice loud, like artillery fire, “Mia says you guys are friends again.”

Eva watches a commercial for carpet deodorizer on the television and says nothing. Chesney snaps his fingers and claps his hands together. This is supposed to make him look relaxed, but he fools no one.

“Is this Mia-” Ira says. He looks at their mother and changes his mind.

Ira has stopped consulting the green packet, which Eva last saw crumpled in the corner of his bedroom. He still goes through the repetitions, the muscles in his shoulders sharper and more defined. Some mornings Eva sees him running in the neighborhood. The first few times, she watched him pass with a kind of hazy familiarity, unable to reconcile this new athlete with the brother who plays video games and smokes pot in the shed. He’s absorbed the strangeness she feels when watching contestants on Survivor.

Oh good, she’s caught herself thinking, he’s still on the island. She wishes goodwill to her brother as though he were an image on a sheet of glass. Then Ira belches or goes to the kitchen and Eva draws her breath in, as if a man on the television were looking back, as if he had spoken to her.

Now, only a few contestants remain on the island. The lawyer has teamed up with the woman with mole and a female truck driver to form a secret alliance to pick off the others. They’ve derailed a wilderness instructor, a river rafting guide, and an Ironman tri-athlete.

“Is there an alliance?” the host asks them at the campfire.

“No,” the lawyer deadpans, a good liar.

“This show is so unrealistic,” Ira says, looking up from his crunches. “The river guide they sent home had more survival skills than all of the alliance members put together.”

“Please don’t throw the weights, honey.” Their mother is intent on her knitting.

“That’s one thing they’ll teach you in the army,” Chesney says, settling back. “How to fight when the odds are against you.”

No one speaks for a moment.

“How’s the job search going, Chesney?” their mother asks, and what she means is that Chesney should know better.

Eva looks to where Hal, her favorite contestant, has just lost his immunity necklace. She likes Hal because he refuses to take the show seriously. Last week he constructed a telephone out of coconuts and only addressed other contestants if they used it to speak to him. He teaches at a survival school and once confided to viewers that he’d spent a month on his own in the wilderness. Last week, the other contestants laughed at the coconut phone, but Eva had noticed how he opened the coconut without a knife, without spilling a drop of the liquid inside.

“Do you know Mia’s sister used to weigh three-hundred pounds?” Chesney says. “Then they did this operation where they made her stomach smaller.”

Ira pauses mid-crunch. “I bet she has to eat all the time. The whole point of a stomach is to store food when there’s none around.”

“Who cares if she’s always eating?” Chesney says. “She’s hot. Mia says she’s thinking of getting her breasts done, too.”

“We could all benefit from some plastic surgery,” their mother says.

“Pretty soon we’ll live forever with the help of technology,” Ira says. “We won’t even need to send soldiers to get blown up anymore. We’ll just have robotic drones.”

Even Chesney stares at the television, where Hal has just been voted off. Eva waits for someone to come and explain that there’s been a mistake, but Hal crosses the bridge into darkness.

“What if we were on Survivor?” Chesney says. “Who would get voted off the island?”

“Well, in the interest of family, Chesney,” their mother says, and Eva loves her.

“Right, right,” Chesney says, unfazed, “but after me, who then?”

Ira looks up from his bicep curls. “I guess since I’m leaving anyway.” He shrugs.

Chesney leans forward. The front legs of his chair hit the carpet with a thud.

“I think I’ll go into the army, too,” he says. “We can be stationed together and then go to college.”

“Sure Ches,” Ira says. “That’d be great.”

And what he means is that Chesney will get married and take over the family exterminating business. Eva would like to ask Ira what would happen if they had a family business. If he wishes there were one. On television, the secret alliance outnumbers everyone now.

***

Eva’s classroom looks dingy and cramped from the front of the room.

Survivor does portray mental and verbal violence,” she tells her classmates, who are writing letters to their friends or staring out the window. “But our group thought it was important for people to see the ways people treat one another in the real world. Maybe, in the future, this kind of violence won’t seem surprising. It’ll just be how things are, and we’ll be prepared for it.”

Mr. Houpt nods. “I put the three of you in a group together on purpose,” he says, as if they hadn’t guessed it. “What was the experience of working together like for you?”

Eva would like to sit down on the yellow linoleum and close her eyes.

“It wasn’t a big deal for me,” Mia says. “The bible says you’re supposed to love your enemies.”

“It encourages a person to think about previous actions and move past them,” Kenda says.

“What about you Eva?” Mr. Houpt asks. “What do you think?”

Eva runs her fingers along the bottom edge of the whiteboard. She feels a dried piece of gum someone’s stuck there. “It’s all in the past,” she says.

“It’s almost over now anyway.” Her classmates look back with their dark circles and bloodshot eyes.

***

The bus will pick Ira up at the shopping mall at five a.m., but he takes a break from packing to watch the final episode of Survivor. Chesney settles himself against the wall. His red T-shirt makes his skin look orange, like cantaloupe. Ira settles into his crunches.

“You are a bunch of lying backstabbers.” The truck driver spits as the host extinguishes her torch. “Not one of you deserves a million dollars.”

The camera cuts to the lawyer who confides to the audience, “It’s just a game.”

“That guy’s going to win this,” Chesney says, “and if you dropped him on an island, he wouldn’t last a day.”

“You are backstabbing, lying jerks,” the truck driver says. “If you were lost and thirsty in the middle of the desert, I wouldn’t give you a glass of water, wouldn’t even stop my truck to give you a ride.”

Eva envies her, the way she seems to say what she means.

Ira’s weights move back and forth across the television screen as the remaining two demolish their campsite and set it on fire. Eva wonders how they will extinguish the fire, and if there are interns waiting behind the scenes to help.

“I might go for a walk,” she says. What she means is she’s had enough.

Ira puts down his weights. “I should finish packing.”

“Hey,” says Chesney, “you can’t leave without watching the grand finale.”

Eva shrugs. “You can tell me about it when I get back.” She takes a moment tying her sneakers, waiting to see if Ira will get up from the floor. On screen, people are voting, and she sees his face reflected in the television. His eyes are bright, as if he’s staring back at her, but it isn’t her he’s looking at.

Out on the sidewalk, Eva hears the Survivor theme music slipping through the open windows of the other houses. The whole neighborhood is watching. The voice of the host slips past the swaying curtains, echoes in the empty street, and for a moment it feels like they’re all in the show, the whole town of them.

Through the window, Eva watches Ira finish his bicep curls and Chesney emerge from the bathroom with an electric razor. He drapes a blanket around Ira’s shoulders, and her mother turns up the volume. Eva sees the television reflected in the window glass, sees the flickering firelight, the small figures of the contestants moving on the screen. Somewhere in that rectangle her brother sits, his beautiful hair falling around his feet. Eva touches her own hair, and tries to imagine what will happen to them in the world of cameras, as the flagpole cable clangs and clangs, exactly as it’s clanging now.

______________________________________________

Julialicia Case’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crazyhorse,Willow SpringsWitnessWater-Stone ReviewThe Pinch and other journals. She graduated from the master’s program in creative writing at the University of California, Davis, and currently teaches at Millikin University in Illinois.

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