“Evan, you reached the challenge ahead of Bella, so you go first,” Jake said. “Good luck!”
Bella wasn’t sorry Evan was to go ahead of her, even though he’d only beaten her to the river by a few steps. They’d hiked together for the most part, talking little as the day warmed up and they worked the kinks out of their muscles. Too much of her time was spent considering the way he’d furtively squeezed her hand last night under the covers. What had he meant by it? And why had he abandoned the tent halfway through the night? It couldn’t have been comfortable sleeping outside without a sleeping bag.
When he approached the river, Jessie handed Evan a wetsuit and ushered him toward a makeshift changing room the crew had rigged up nearby. A few minutes later, Bella watched him squeeze into the kayak and Jessie snap him in. The woman made him practice rolling the kayak and flipping himself back to vertical several times, and Bella was relieved to see six other men and women joining him in the water in their own kayaks. Apparently there would be plenty of help should something go wrong out on the river.
She bit her lip as Evan fought the current to get away from shore. A guide kayak led him upstream far enough so he could turn around and get going in the right direction before he reached two bright red poles that demarked the starting point. The current grabbed the kayak immediately and whisked him down the course. The poles which marked the sides must be farther apart than they looked from the banks, because he didn’t seem to be struggling to stay between them. He was struggling, however, to head towards the first container of fish, and to her surprise, he missed it all together.
“Harder than it looks, eh?” Jake said.
“Yes—it must be.”
Evan paddled like mad and managed to snag the next fish, and the next one. He nearly missed the fourth container, but with a last desperate struggle and heave, he snagged one, nearly lost it, managed to hold on and shoved it in the bag, too.
“Damn it—miss!” she yelled, forgetting for a moment she was on camera. That wouldn’t look very good. She sighed. No sense even wondering if Madelyn might not choose to air that—of course she would.
But she whooped aloud as Evan did miss the last one. He’d been heading straight for the container when his kayak jerked away from it, nearly unbalancing him. She had to remember the current went funky there.
“Three points for Evan. Looks like a challenging course, Bella. Are you ready for it?” Jake asked.
She was getting sick of his smarmy television-announcer tones, but she answered clearly, “Yes—I’m all set!”
She wished it was true. She wasn’t afraid of a river like she’d been of the zip lines yesterday—she’d actually gone whitewater river rafting before, which seemed much more dangerous than this—but seeing Evan flailing around told her the current was very strong and she knew she might not make it through the entire course without being pulled right past the boundary poles. Plus, she had to make up some lost points, or Evan was going to get too far ahead of her to beat.
You can do this, she told herself as she struggled into her wetsuit. Evan may be stronger, but he’s also heavier. You don’t need to be as strong as him to stay on course. She had no idea if that made any sense, but it sounded good.
She allowed Jessie to help her into the kayak, her courage lasting right until Jessie made her flip it. She went over just fine, but she struggled mightily to get back up and was gasping for breath by the time she managed it.
“You all right?” Jessie asked.
“Yes.” What else could she say?
“Do it again.”
“What?” She had to be kidding.
“Again—I can’t let you out there until you know how to flip and recover.” The stocky blonde stared her down.
Bella sighed but flipped over again. This time she came up rightside more quickly, but the effort it took made her arms ache and she hadn’t even started the course yet.
“You’d better try that one more…” Jessie began but Madelyn appeared on shore.
“We’re behind schedule. Move it!”
Apparently even Jessie was afraid of the director, but the woman’s expression was uneasy as she said, “All right, get out there.”
Bella paddled unsteadily out to a position far upstream of the starting gate. She wanted to stall for time and recover from her exertions and the cold slap of ice water on her face when she’d gone over, but fighting the current to stay in place sapped her energy too much. Best to just get this over with.
Evan had missed the first container. She had to get that fish. She decided to overcorrect, get as close to the guide-poles on the right-hand side of the course as possible and allow the current to bring her back to the container. She turned the kayak, drifted to the starting point, and paddled for all she was worth to the right. Her strategy worked, except when she judged it time to ease up and let the current take her, it swirled her around and she was nearly facing backward when she got to the container. She just managed to fling her arm out and make a wild grab as it went by.
She stuffed it in the nylon bag, grabbed hold of the paddle again and drove for the second container. The current seemed weaker now and she saw why Evan had an easier time getting the next several fish. Unfortunately, she got too cocky and overshot the fourth container. She hung on for a moment, paddling backward furiously before she remembered the rule against going back for fish. She had to give in and let the current drag her forward again.
The final container was where that tricky current jerked Evan away at the last moment. How could she get past it? Since the container sat right at the edge of the course, she couldn’t try to pass it on the far side—she had to approach it in the same way Evan had. All she could do was count on her ability to dig in and fight the current.
With little hope of actually accomplishing this, she paddled toward the end of the course. When she approached the final container she put on a burst of speed, digging her paddle far into the water as she got close. She felt the current grab the kayak and realized why Evan hadn’t been able to overcome it—she felt like a giant hand had closed on the prow and yanked her off course. With desperate strokes she paddled in the opposite direction—she still had a shot. The current jerked her around and she gave up fighting it. Instead she hurled the paddle away and lunged toward the container. Her right hand closed on the hard plastic shape of a fish as she overbalanced and hit the water, the cold shock of it forcing the air from her lungs.