This story is by Victory Jo and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Demanding sustenance that I am not ready to give, my stomach grumbles its disapproval. I give my belly a small rub, hoping that will assuage the discomfort for the moment―it does not. Apparently, keeping my core warm in these subzero temperatures has given it the inflated impression that it runs the show, and maybe it does. I don’t know. What I do know is that I have enough food to last about one more week before I have to head home.
The icy ground wouldn’t feel as cold if I weren’t sitting on it with my back resting against rocks, but I have to be here. At least my knees are pulled up close so that my Baffin Impact Insulated Boots settle firmly on the ground―reducing the amount of my body in contact with it. It amazes me these things are rated for temperatures as low as -148 degrees Fahrenheit. One would have to be crazy to be in those temperatures. I mean, I’m crazy, but at least it’s a balmy -20 degrees here today.
I drop my head and rub my neck. Four weeks and not a glimpse of my target. Four friggin’ weeks. She is an elusive little vixen. All my intel pointed to this exact location. What did I do wrong? Maybe I should just give up and go home.
No, no I can do this! I was hired for this, and I knew exactly what I was agreeing to. Plus… I’ve already spent the deposit. One more day. I can push through one more day. She can’t hide forever―or maybe she can. We really don’t know. I just need to outfox her… somehow. That is part of the reason my Arctic Cat and I are hidden in this crudely built shelter with my tent and supplies a few miles away. Besides, I wouldn’t make it far today anyway; the sun will set within the hour.
With the dark season closing in, daylight hours are fewer and fewer. I need to be gone before it prevents me from getting back home. I need to get up and move around, clear my mind. I need to, but I shouldn’t move from my shelter. Come on! This is not the time to lose focus. I’m so hungry. Just a bit longer. Be strong.
I look up and immediately lock gazes with the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Doh! She saw me! My cover has failed me. I want to look away, but her exquisite beauty draws me in deeper. I want to reach out and talk to her, to touch her. Would she let me? How far is too far?
I slowly scan the horizon. She and I appear to be alone here in this desolate terrain. Engaging with the target would be breaking my contract, but no one would ever know except her and me. My heart pounds and breath caught in my throat. She still hasn’t moved. Her eyes are curious, almost inviting, but I can sense her uneasiness. Her legs are planted unevenly, ready to run, her eyes fixated on me. This is so much more than I ever imagined. After four excruciating weeks, I finally found her.
No contact with the target.
That was the client’s stipulation. They were aware of her guile. She’d found their last hire, too, resulting in a failed mission. She is cunning, I will give her that.
I exhale slowly. My breath is visible in the frigid air that surrounds us. What was I even thinking coming here? I don’t belong here―no one does. I keep still so that I don’t frighten her. She doesn’t know me, not like I know her, this fair-haired enchantress. She doesn’t know that she should fear me, that I am the greatest threat here. Although I bear her no malice, I’ve seen what can happen when our kinds cross paths.
She slowly circles me, sizing me up. How I wish I knew what she is thinking right now. Is she returning for the night or getting ready to hunt? Am I the one in danger now? Even with the strong wind blowing across the snowy plane, I can hear her soft footsteps, quickening with each passing second.
She stops in front of me, just out of reach, and lifts her head toward a burrow entrance close by then looks back at me. This feels like being called on by Mrs. Gunderson in third grade all over again after having not read the material the night before. I can see her calculating her next move, and I immediately know, I have failed. Now that she knows I am here, I will never see her again.
I hold my breath and fidget with my trembling hands. The fluttering in my stomach is not from hunger. I never meant for this to happen―to be found out and confronted. I was simply to observe her in her natural habitat, a place rarely visited by humans, to learn about and record her true essence in its purest form. This icy tundra is one of the last places on Earth where man hasn’t invaded, and the wildlife is truly wild.
This arctic fox―in all her white magnificent glory―doesn’t welcome my presence in her territory. She doesn’t like competition, and she values her survival. She walks away toward the burrow while keeping a cautious eye on me.
I take my last ride back to basecamp. As the wind gets stronger, I can feel it biting at the exposed portions of my face. After moving inside the tent and closing it up tight, I pull an MRE out of my rucksack along with my trusty bottle of hot sauce. I never go anywhere without it, and it makes the burger just barely palatable. I pour some water I collected nearby into the heating bag and begin preparing the meal.
In the morning I will pack up and head for home. Unfortunately, this journey has not turned out quite as I had hoped. Even though I have come this far, I must put this vixen’s needs before my own desires. I am the intruder in this land, and I fear if I remain here too long my presence will disrupt the delicate balance of this ecosystem. My stomach growls loudly once more, demanding my attention. Patience has never been its virtue. I give it a pat, “Alright, friend,” and take a bite.