Contest #232 shortlist ⭐️

Svalbard

Submitted into Contest #232 in response to: Set your story during polar night.... view prompt

15 comments

Fiction

In the summer its Midnight Sun, but in the winter its Polar Night. Two months of darkness! That was David’s way of introducing me to Svalbard.


My pre-teen relocation to northern Virginia from Florida had never quite settled in me, both socially and meteorologically. On snow days, when my friends were gleeful with plans to meet at the park to sled, I would opt out for reasons of awkwardness, but mostly: it was too cold. As an adult, I hated the darkness of winter, and I hated driving in precarious weather, and I hated having a job that I couldn’t call off from just because the roads were icy.


David loved winter, though. David, to be fair, loved everything. This was equal parts endearing and annoying, the way he wore his perpetual grin like a badge of honor, how he woke up whistling and did joyful morning things like making coffee and snapping open the blinds. Me, I was buried under blankets, sleeping off late-night bartender hours, rage bubbling inside of me at all the noise David was making with his merry morning mood.


We complimented each other, though. Everyone said so. David’s the optimist, and you’re the realist, our friends said, “realist” being a nicer way of saying “pessimist” I guess. It’s not that I was cranky and miserable, not at all. It’s just that David was so upbeat, so in love with everything, that anything I got excited about paled in comparison. And truthfully, at the point when Svalbard was first mentioned, my life in general was pale, a subdued monotone. A four-year college degree, mountains of debt, and working as a bartender because I made more money doing that than I would have with my history degree. Our townhouse apartment was crappy, we couldn’t have pets, and David and I had opposite work schedules, so I barely saw him.


The only thing I really liked about my life, that I was really in love with, I thought, was David. He was warm and cuddly and inspiring, and you couldn’t help but want to champion his endeavors. When he told me about the Svalbard opportunity and I began to picture several months without him, panic set in. So I went.


David’s various appearances on local podcasts talking about the weather and natural phenomena had become something of a hit, and so last year, when he started his TikTok channel about things like weird animals, crazy rains, and heat waves, I figured it would be the same—a local hit. I had not expected it to blow up as it did, with David becoming something of an influencer, and people offering him money to visit their hometown, where it was rainy all the time, or some weird bluff blocked the wind, or they lived in a house where the high tide came right to the front door. They would pay him, fly him out and back to wherever, to ensure their little corner of the world becoming viral for five minutes, thanks to adorable David’s one minute long TikTok.


(It needs to be said that David’s rugged handsomeness, his Bradley Cooper eyes and his dark blonde curls, were part of the charm of his popularity. He knew it, I knew it, and the grandmothers and teens who crowded around him and liked his posts up to the millions knew it.)


Svalbard came out of nowhere though. That was like going from being a musician playing at regional venues to becoming Taylor Swift on her rise to stardom. Svalbard—basically the north pole—wanted David for an extended stay. There was a cabin, there was extreme weather phenomena (the Polar Night, the Northern Lights) and there was a stipend. They wanted their dark corner of the world to go viral, to be understood, and David was the ticket. They would even give us a dog, which is something we couldn’t have in our suburban Virginia townhouse, and sometimes I think this is the main reason I agreed to go.


The Polar Night and the Northern Lights were the big deal, the wild marvels that David was going to experience for the first time and share with the world via TikTok. At first, when he told me where it was and asked me to come, I laughed—me, move to the north pole? But he was serious, and I didn’t want to be without him, and like he said…bartenders are needed everywhere. Or, I could just chill for a while…the money he was earning was more than we’d ever seen, and Svalbard was less expensive than living right outside of DC. I laughed at that too. “Chill” for a while? That sounded great...but on a beach with sunshine. The Polar Night was not only a cold event, but a dark one, hence the name.


I feel like I might get depressed, with nothing to do but “chill”, I complained to David, during our final days of packing, shoving my new winter gear into vacuum sealed bags.


But David was unconcerned. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Don’t forget about the Northern Lights! And the dog!


When we arrive in Svalbard, I’m disenchanted immediately. It’s the middle of the day and it’s dark. I knew this would be so, but it still shocks me. Pitch black, a forever night. I feel panic rising in me as we are met at the tiny airport by Lars, who has squinty eyes and high cheekbones and David’s brand of enthusiasm. He’s wearing a head lamp, and although things outside are lit by ambient lighting from the buildings and homes, it’s still dark. And cold. I already hate it.


The cabin isn’t the cabin I envisioned, some hybrid of Little House on the Prairie and a glamping type of place. It feels more like a trailer, although it is warm and clean, and I am exhausted. David is bouncing off the walls on that first day, and Lars is eager to give him a proper tour of the town, but I beg off, claiming jet lag.


Before they go, Lars brings in the dog from his Jeep. I hadn’t even noticed it in the back, although the vehicle had a heavy, pungent aroma of wet fur. The dog is a husky, blue-eyed with a cinnamon and white coat, one of Lars’ pack, but this one is aloof and a loner, he tells me, so he won’t mind being separated for a few months. His name is Oden, and he looks at me with distain, as if he cannot believe he has to live with me, the miserable American. Even the dog, the thing I was most excited about, has underwhelmed me. I blink back tears as Lars quickly schools me about Oden’s food, assures me that he’s an easy keeper, and then they leave to explore the night.


And that is how Svalbard begins for me—alone in an ugly not-cabin, a black midday, and a dog that smells awful staring at me like he cannot believe this is truly his life.


David encourages me to give myself time to get used to the darkness. He tells me that he, too, is struggling without sunlight but it’s a lie. I can see this as the days and weeks go by, the zest in his step as he brainstorms his next reel…will it be the local café with sunlamps? A review of the best winter gear? A TikTok of me walking Oden and the dangers of polar bears (which he not-so-secretly wants to see)—because that’s a thing here too, something previously unmentioned. Polar bears.


I, on the other hand, still hate Svalbard. I hate the dark. I hate the people who seem to love the dark, who go on and on about the peaceful calm, who use “winter” as a verb. As in, they are wintering through the long night. I miss Virginia, a place I’ve never cared for, and I hate my family and friends when they post pictures of a 55-degree January day, everyone pulling their grills out of suburban garages and throwing footballs around the neighborhoods.


I also hate the pubs in town. I don’t want to work at them, and I don’t like the talk of the tourist season that’s coming, because it’s almost peak Northern Light time. The people are friendly, but I know they see me as David’s sad little girlfriend. David is immediately accepted, a star, and I am the afterthought, sitting bereft on a barstool with a bottle of beer, my equally un-charismatic husky at my feet. It reminds me of high school, when everyone seemed to be on the same wavelength, and I sat stagnantly in the back of class, watching the world unfold in front of me, wondering what the purpose of my life was.


I don’t hate Oden, but I do hate walking him, at first. David will gladly do it; he loves Oden and his “stoicism” (of course he does, he loves everything) plus he's dreaming of the polar bear. But a weird thing happens after we’ve been there a few weeks. I start to feel a little possessive of Oden, even though I know he is not mine and truthfully, he’s a curmudgeon of a dog. Even things that should bring him pleasure like food, or squeaky toys, seem to annoy him. I swear his icy eyes roll when I try to talk to him, sweetening up my voice with sugar, hey Oden, come here buddy, sit by me. Occasionally, begrudgingly, he will get up from his plaid bed by the heat stove and come sit next to me, his dreadfully hairy body against my thigh. David, probably, is out at some bar interviewing the locals on the influx of tourists that have begun to arrive. We are rarely home together, relaxing, wintering. David is too busy creating content.


I begin to rebuff his offers to walk the dog, even though it is dark and cold, always and forever. Gearing up no longer seems to be such a chore, it’s just what I do. Undergarments, clothes, long, puffy coat, hat, heated gloves, boots, the fucking headlamp, and Oden’s glow in the dark harness that blinks three colors, like a carnival—orange, red and yellow. I put him on a long leash and bury my phone deep into my inner pockets—making sure it is charged in case of a polar bear. Oden and I walk the path near the shore, close to the sea, which seems like a dark, dangerous expanse although I cannot say for sure, because I haven’t actually seen it beyond the meager reach of my headlamp.


While David mostly wants to walk Oden because he really, really wants to have a polar bear encounter, I do not. Its a death wish, but we're told it’s actually pretty unlikely. It’s something to be aware of, but super rare. David thinks having Oden will alert him to said polar bear; that Oden will protect him. I feel the opposite, that a polar bear will hide, will be more afraid of Oden than Oden is of it. I am equating polar bears in my head to the black bears of Virginia. They are more fearful of humans than humans are of them. They will run and hide. They rarely attack. In my head, polar bears become cute little things. I forget that they are twice the size of black bears.


I think we are all going a bit mad here, in Svalbard.


When the Polar Night begins to wane and we enter what everyone calls civil twilight, things become blue. There is a period when the light is just bright enough that the headlamp isn’t necessary, although I of course take it everywhere. I am now immune to the cold, I think, its just part of life as I walk Oden, every few hours. The greatest period for Northern Light viewing is about to happen, and people are flying into Svalbard left and right. The whole town is tripping.


Meanwhile, me and Oden are just walking. I barely see David anymore. I think, a lot, on these walks, and I sort out my thoughts verbally to Oden, who says nothing but seems to listen. I realize, stunningly, that although I do love David, I am not in love with him; he isn’t the right person for me. I don’t want to spend my life traveling the world, which I think is what his life will be. Already, he has offers to spend time in Australia in search of scary bugs and animals and Antarctica (really, isn’t one freezing cold location enough?) He is excited about this, and I am excited for him, truly, but I don’t want to go. I want to go home, even though I don’t really know what that means anymore, either. But it’s not with David.


Only Oden knows this, though, as we wrap up time, and the weeks—which once seemed so very many—wind down. I begin to wonder if Lars will let me take Oden with me. It’s unlikely, since every time I run into Lars he has this moment with Oden where he looks into his eyes and I swear little cartoon hearts float above his head, but I’m not sure how I’m supposed to leave him? David says, oh it's too bad we can’t have pets in our apartment back home while he scratches Oden’s ears, but I already know I’ll be looking for another place. I try to imagine Oden, feral northern beast that he thinks he is, on an airplane, in a gated townhouse community, and it seems comical. But I’m going to ask Lars. I am.


And then, it is our last week. The weirdest thing happens…I start to feel nostalgic. The blue hour is longer now, several hours, and the sky at times begins to hang onto pastel threads of color—puffy pinks and hazy orange-greys. I can see more of the Artic Ocean, and I am suddenly stunned with disbelief that I am walking—have been walking, daily—along the coast of the Artic Ocean. I start to feel what David feels, just a bit. There is a bounce in my step, and when there is, Oden perks up too. He looks back at me, and now I think there are cartoon hearts above his head.


David is super busy with his final edits and “lasts” of Svalbard, and with securing arrangements for the next trip, to Australia. My “lasts” are only Oden and the walks. We go and go and go, every day, so much that Oden does nothing else but sleep when we are home. And then, one afternoon, it happens.


Oden stops suddenly, and there is enough ambient light that I can see around me. He’s looking toward the water, intent, frozen. His light up harness is flickering, and he looks almost comical, until I follow his gaze and I see it.


Polar bear.


I freeze too, because I don’t know what else to do. I can’t remember what I was told. We are far from the cabin. My phone is indeed in the pocket of my heated vest, but I am too terrified to move, too awed by the ghostly white form that seems both incredibly far and way too close at once. Oden conjures a growl, low and soft, and I swear the beast turns towards us for a harrowing moment, a split second in time when I wonder if this is it, this is how it ends. I think of the wildness of this idea…that me, the shy Florida transplant, the girl who isn’t that interesting, would die by the Artic Ocean, torn apart by a polar bear.


But the bear goes away, where: I do not know. When enough time seems to have passed, Oden and I turn and continue home, walking casually, though my heart is crashing the entire time. Oden, too, seems on high alert, and when we arrive at the cabin, and I shut the door and secure our safety, I begin to cry. It is not sadness or fear or relief at being alive—but some unameable emotion, maybe all three mixed together. I laugh and sob at the same time, and Oden acts like a puppy and jumps around me. I know then that I will insist that Lars let me have him.


We board the plane a few days later, Oden easily secured from Lars with a tearful soliloquy of my love for him (captured for social media by David, of course). I think about telling David about the polar bear. I want to, but I don’t, because he wanted that so badly and I got it, instead. Because it was awesome and powerful and, I already think, the most defining moment of my life. I want to share this with him, but I know it will become TikTok fodder, and I don’t want that. It was mine alone, mine and Oden's. I know I want a person who would understand that. Who would not have a need to tell his two million followers.


I lean my head on David’s shoulder as we take off, and I know I am going to leave him as soon as we get back. But what I want is someone who will walk that nighttime path with me, and only me. I want simplicity—the Polar Night, but my polar night. I think to myself, I went to Svalbard for you, and then I look at Oden, at the hundreds of Northern Light pictures on my phone, and the memory of the ghostly white bear that only Oden and I know about, and I think, maybe, that Svalbard was for me. In the darkness of the Polar Night, I was finally able to see myself. 

January 08, 2024 12:00

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15 comments

Leah Braatz
03:48 Jan 26, 2024

Love this.

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Ken Cartisano
18:29 Jan 23, 2024

Jesus Christ. I loved this story, from beginning to end. Incredible writing. (How could someone write with such power and finesse, and not know that 'Arctic' has two 'c's?) Who cares, I tell the right side of my brain. Who fucking cares. This story is a literary masterpiece. You may think I'm kidding, but I assure you, (he isn't), I'm not. This is like an upside down love story. The last line is absolutely brilliant.

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Philip Ebuluofor
18:33 Jan 20, 2024

Yeah, Flo, there is no way it isn't going to be for you. It's in the DNA. Congrats.

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Charles Corkery
21:07 Jan 17, 2024

Nice story. Well done!

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Alexis Araneta
11:30 Jan 15, 2024

Somehow, perhaps 1/3 of the way reading this, I knew the protagonist would leave David. They want completely different things, and when the protagonist was explaining how she didn't want to go, David kept ignoring her. Amazing job responding to the prompt.

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Claire Trbovic
14:01 Jan 13, 2024

Ah everyone needs an Oden! Such a great piece, I oddly felt pretty sorry for David at the end, mainly on account of memories becoming tiktok fodder, happens to the best of us. Great character arc for the MC, loved it all round :)

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Karen McDermott
13:10 Jan 13, 2024

Simply faultless. Humour, heartache and a dog with cartoon hearts. Well done!

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Lindsay Flo
13:25 Jan 13, 2024

Thank you!!

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Rebecca Miles
19:07 Jan 10, 2024

Does it take Svalbard to help you know yourself, or a dog? All of us with four- legged friends know the answer! This has a satisfying character arc against a beautiful backdrop; Oden is just perfect: the Northern light of the show. If you revisit this at another point in time, I'd mull over the ending. I wonder whether the bartender "transplant" might take root rather than return with David...just a ponder. It could be interesting to see. Good luck with this.

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Lindsay Flo
13:27 Jan 13, 2024

Oh that’s an interesting idea!

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21:59 Jan 08, 2024

Beautiful beautiful stuff Lindsay. Well done on this. I was reading about Svalbard as well as research for this prompt! You did a great job on it. I think you have an unnecessary 'and' in this sentence fyi: I realize, stunningly, that although I do love David, and I am not in love with him

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Lindsay Flo
12:22 Jan 09, 2024

Thanks for catching that! Yes, I googled "polar nights" wondering what would possess a person to want to live in the north pole, and ended up reading and learning (and yes, watching TikToks!) about Svalbard and various other places which all inspired this story. Plus, I learned some things I didn't know before :)

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13:33 Jan 09, 2024

Well done again! I couldn't come up with anything in the end!

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Mary Bendickson
17:29 Jan 08, 2024

Winner, winner! I called two winners this week. Well done. CONGRATS.

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Lindsay Flo
12:19 Jan 09, 2024

Thank you!!

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