Ashley wanted to be famous. That’s not an insult, it’s the truth. She said so herself on the first night, sitting cross-legged by the fire after the cameras left. Back when they were all still new to each other. She said, “I’m here to get famous, aren’t you?” Mara had never heard anyone talk about fame that way, like it was something you could earn and spend. But that was Ashley, or how she used to be. Practical, even in the woods.
The funny thing is that it probably would have worked. Ashley was magazine-gorgeous, with this earnest charm, like she saw everyone for who they wanted to be instead of who they were. Someone like that, once the world noticed her, she could write her ticket. She’d smuggled a folding comb in her bra and buried it behind camp, so she could smooth her long hair each morning before the camera crew came back. She said it was her job to look good.
Then there was Kyle. Kyle was an Eagle Scout, which meant a lot to him, although none of the others even pretended to care. A skinny kid with red hair and perfect posture. He was nineteen, from Indiana, and he had a way of waiting after people spoke, just a beat too long, to see if they were finished talking. It was meant to be polite, but it creeped Mara out. She had always felt most comfortable around people who ignored her.
Bullfrog was a carpenter from Michigan. He barely talked to his teammates those first weeks, though he talked to the cameras. He was a real anarchist type, old-school. The kind who wouldn’t call it anarchy, just country living or “fuck the government” or something like that. Mara didn’t understand why he’d want to be on a reality show. It took her a long time to make sense of Bullfrog at all.
There was a fifth guy, too. James. Probably out thriving somewhere. You wouldn’t think he’d be the most painful for Mara to think about, but that’s how it goes. He was the only one who got out in time.
The show was called Civilization. Their clothes were fast-fashion prehistoric, canvas tunics and matching shorts, all dyed a dusty brown. And sandals made of thin leather, so they had to walk delicately, toe first, like girls playing fairies. The idea was that they’d found one another in the wilderness, this group of strangers, and over the course of six weeks would be tasked with building a new kind of community, something pure and sustainable and right. They would forgo all comforts, so that viewers didn’t have to. They would be one with the forest. They would find a way to live.
Presumably the process would reveal something about the dawn of civilization. What society would look like if it were made from scratch, that sort of thing. How it might be different. You could practically hear the pitch meeting.
But really it was just a survival show. That’s what they told Mara in the auditions. She said, “Look, I’m not trying to rebuild society. I’m just trying to get out of it.” She had plenty to get away from. Her boyfriend, Ethan, for one thing, who was the real survival geek of the two of them. The casting agent said, “Don’t worry about the conceit. How are you at building shelters? Have you ever used snares?” Of course she had, and he knew that. So she mumbled along, and she must have fit whatever slot they were looking to fill. Young woman with experience, not beautiful, to balance out Ashley, who was beautiful but inexperienced. They must have done that with the men, too. The Eagle Scout, the math teacher, the old grouch who had a heart of gold—or with the right edits, the right music, they could make it seem like he did. The survivors might as well have introduced themselves by their archetypes.
At the time the show found Mara, she was living in a camper with Ethan pretty deep in the woods. The camper wasn’t road-worthy, but they’d built two walls and a roof around it, so it stayed dry even in the soggy Washington winter. They had lived there three years at that point, and the camper felt smaller each season. They were always in each other’s way. They did laundry in a pond and smoked too much. It bothered Ethan that Mara had grown up off-grid, whereas he’d come to the lifestyle for the aesthetic, or at least that’s what she said when they fought. But he had the dedication of a convert. He was always coming up with new ideas—solar ovens, beehives, a greenhouse made of reclaimed windows from the dump. She wanted a dishwasher.
Four days a week, Ethan and Mara worked at a survival school run by a former blockchain developer named Bjørn. They taught classes sometimes, trapping and fire-building and so on, but the school’s biggest business was leaving clients in the woods overnight. There were always people willing to pay for the experience: a steady stream of tech bros, spiritual seekers, and corporate burnouts from Seattle, for whom camping itself would have felt too banal. If they paid good money, their night outside was recognized, celebrated.
In the mornings, Mara gathered clients from their assigned sites and made them scrambled eggs over a campfire, assuring them that they had indeed conquered the wilderness, though a fair number spent the night shivering, and never built or caught anything at all. Then she gave out braided leather bracelets in a fireside ceremony. She could tell people treasured them. Like they’d wear their bracelets to the office on Monday, and touch them throughout the day to remind themselves who they really were.
Civilization’s casting team came to the survival school, which was called Primal Instinct, to search for talent. They brought the instructors one by one into a hotel room, sat them on the edge of a bed, and asked for their life stories. Just the highlights: age, family, hobbies, trauma. They must have liked Mara’s, because the next day they called her back to the hotel. The room was disheveled by then, and the bedspread less crisp.
“So tell me,” said the casting agent from behind a giant lens. He wore a blazer and sipped an energy drink through a straw. “What skills would you bring to this challenge?”
He told her to answer in full sentences, as if she were not responding to a question at all, but simply thinking aloud.
“I would bring many skills to the challenge,” said Mara, feeling uncomfortable. “For instance, I’m good at foraging.” She was good at a lot of things outdoors, but foraging was the first that came to mind.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s a start. Can you say it with more conviction?”
Mara sat up straighter, which was hard, because the edge of the bed sloped down. “I’m very good at foraging.”
“Do you think you can last six weeks out there?”
“Anything could happen. I could get struck by lightning. But I think my odds are good.”
“What would you say your odds are?”
“Better than most.”
“Full sentences. And look, you do you, but if you could sound more confident—”
She was trying.
“I will last six weeks in the challenge,” Mara said. Then, when he didn’t respond, “I know for a fact that I can last six weeks out there, whatever happens. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”
That wasn’t strictly accurate. Mara rarely slept outside the camper when she wasn’t working; she didn’t see the point. But the agent liked it.
“Great,” he said. “Perfect. Do you want to add anything about making nature your bitch?”
“I’d rather not,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, glancing at his notes. “That was promising, Mary. That’ll do for now.”
She did not expect to hear from him again. But a few weeks later, the show’s producer, Lenny, called and told her she’d made the cut. She had three days to commit or decline. Bjørn was thrilled. Having an instructor on television would be a boon for Primal Instinct. He could offer special promotions, and host a public viewing party with chaga beer and cricket chips for snacks. He’d charge a premium for Mara’s classes. Even rebrand the school around the show, if it came to that. He asked Mara to mention Primal Instinct by name as many times as she could.
When Mara told Ethan the news, he went outside and didn’t come back all afternoon. She took a nap on the futon, pleased to have the camper to herself. By evening he was ready to talk.
“I’m just concerned,” he said. “I don’t want them to take advantage of you. Don’t you think it’s degrading? Going out there for everyone to see? Living like we do, it’s . . . it’s sacred. It’s not a publicity stunt.”
“Then why did you interview for the show?”
“That was an experiment,” he said. “I wouldn’t say yes if they asked me.”
Mara liked that it bothered him, and that he couldn’t stop her. She hadn’t put much hope in the interview process—she’d assumed that, like most things, it wouldn’t work out—but now that she had a choice, it gave her a warm sense in her belly, and even more so because Ethan disapproved. Besides, there was prize money. Anyone who made it six weeks got a hundred grand. She thought she’d leave Ethan if she made it, start over with the cash, and maybe he sensed that.
She called Lenny and told him she wanted in. She was going to be in Civilization’s opening cast, part of a brand-new journey.
“This will be the hardest thing you ever do,” Lenny told her.
“Of course,” she said. But she doubted it.
LENNY ASKED MARA TO FILM HERSELF GETTING READY, BUT SINCE the details of the show were meant to be a surprise, she wasn’t sure how to prepare. She mostly walked around the property and showed off things she had already done. Ethan made sure she introduced him. “This is our wood-fired hot tub we built,” she said, and he added, from outside the frame, “We built it together,” like she hadn’t just said that. Ethan had a structure behind the camper, a medieval-style roundhouse that he’d worked on sporadically for years. It wasn’t finished, but it was still impressive, with stone walls and a pointy roof. She could tell that Ethan wanted her to film it, but she didn’t. In her mind she had already won the money, and could afford to distinguish between what was hers and what was his.
Lenny sent an eighty-page contract, which Mara was meant to sign in a dozen places and return. She read some of it, then skipped to the part about the prize. There it was: one hundred thousand dollars. With money like that, she’d have options. She could get her GED. There was a community college nearby with a two-year program in wind turbines, and she’d heard that its graduates did well. Mara didn’t care about wind turbines, but she thought she’d be good at the job— working alone, fixing things. She had always been quick to learn.
That was how she felt about survivalism, too. It wasn’t that she was naturally talented, though she knew she was better than most people, and was probably the best instructor at Primal Instinct. She just spent a lot of time in the woods, and she wasn’t upset about being uncomfortable or working hard. It was easy for her to do one task and then another, and then another, which was the way to get through most things in life. She didn’t overthink.
At work, her clients overthought everything. They got cold and some part of them feared they’d be cold forever. They used terms like starvation mode after half a day, and they meant it. When their campouts ended, they were either thrilled or morose, with no middle ground. Mara never understood how a client could be disappointed in the morning. After all, they’d set out to stay in the woods overnight, and they’d succeeded. But clearly there was something else that clients wanted, and no way to gauge from the outside if they found it or not.
The happiest clients weren’t the ones who gathered food, or even made a nice fire, but the ones who built things. Who shaped nature, even slightly, into a form that served or inspired them. A good shelter could do that: a debris hut on a cold night, with mounds of dry leaves to hold in warmth. Or a lean-to on a rainy afternoon: that damp, solid feeling of drops striking all the world but you.
One time Mara went to retrieve a client and found her in a garden made of stones. It must have been ten feet across, a labyrinth of pebbles, a spiral with waves extending out like the rays of a sun. The woman sat cross-legged in the middle, smiling, though she had no shelter or water or food. But she seemed content in a way Mara had rarely seen. When Mara gave her a bracelet, she kissed it before tying it around her wrist, and then she closed her eyes.
Later Mara brought other instructors to see the stones. Normally they took camps apart after clients left, unweaving branches and burying the remains of fires, but none of them wanted to break the maze. So they left it untouched, and stopped bringing people to that spot. Mara often wondered if the stones were still there.
For a while she told other clients about the labyrinth, hoping they’d try something similar. Mostly they were dismissive. “I’m here to survive, not play with rocks,” a guy told her, like she was the one who didn’t get it. Like surviving the night was some big achievement, when it was far easier than making something beautiful. The secret to survival, Mara thought, was that it was hard to die. Even if you gave in, gave up, just sat there and waited for it. You could be waiting a long time.
From Small Game by Blair Braverman. Copyright © 2022 by Blair Braverman. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.