Chapter 5: Four Weeks In
“Alright, place your bets!”
The call for wagers rang out over the viewing room and Kerri snorted, stomping the snow from her boots as she let the back door swing closed behind her. First medical field check was being sent out today, and anyone who dipped below the allotted weight loss percentage would be sent packing. Kerri privately hoped it would be Darren, but thought it would be unprofessional of her to start placing bets in front of the staff.
Two more had dropped out since the first ones had been scared off by the shaman, leaving Holly Helms, homesteader, Todd Sawyer, extreme backpacker, and of course… Darren.
Bumping open the door to the office with a hip, Kerri maneuvered her way in and set the full drink holder on the desk. Jim took an automatic inhale though his nose.
“Mmmm, I love Fridays.”
“Fridays are fat days,” Kerri agreed, plopping the last box of donut holes on the desk between them before taking a seat. “MedBoat made it there yet?”
“No,” Jim replied as he wrestled with the flaps on the grease-stained box. “Scheduled to arrive any minute though. Any wagers?”
Kerri gave him the type of loaded look she usually reserved for her siblings before leaning forward and popping open the top of the donut box.
Jim snorted in response. “That bad?”
“The man was ankle-deep in snow and worried he was going to dehydrate because the lake was starting to freeze. I mean… I’ve known some flakes in my time, but really?”
Jim popped a bite of deep-fried dough into his mouth and grinned. “Well, you might just get your wish. Your Darren hasn’t caught a fish or bagged a rabbit in nearly two weeks. Bet those baneberries are looking pretty good right now.”
“Please,” she begged, “don’t call him ‘my Darren’.” Jim laughed, clearly at her expense, but then a flash of his eyes toward his screen told her MedBoat had just come online. They were approaching the first contestant. “Who’s first?”
“Holly,” he answered. “But she’s been doing fine. She’s really got the small game trails mapped.”
“Not surprising. She’s pretty much been doing this her whole life. Give it a bit longer and the bighorns will be in her area—she’ll have this thing in the bag.”
“I don’t know…” Jim hedged, a challenging lilt to his voice. “Todd’s been doing pretty well.”
Kerri leaned forward and plucked one of the donut holes from the box. “A wager then?” Then she popped it into her mouth.
Jim gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re on.”
Holly did well, Kerri was pleased to watch, not only maintaining sufficient body mass to continue the show, but also displaying her stocks of smoked fish and rabbit meat for the competition ahead. Without hesitation, Doctor Gillis, the physician contracted with MedBoat, determined her fit to continue. Todd, while not nearly as well provisioned as Holly, still managed to maintain sufficient vitals and body weight to continue.
…And then there was Darren…
Kerri reached for another donut hole and popped it eagerly into her mouth.
Jim flicked his eyes toward her. “Never seen you so keen to see someone fail before.”
“Not to see him fail,” she allowed. “To catch him in a lie.”
Jim stared at her a moment longer, then took a breath. “You heard back from Boy Scouts of America…”
“Sure did,” she answered. “Wanna know what they said?”
“—No, I most certainly don’t,” he answered without question, then turned back to the screen. “Here—here he is.”
Med boat was pulling up to the small lakeside beach by Darren’s camp, chunks of broken ice parting across its bow. Darren stood waiting on the shoreline, arm upraised in greeting. Four weeks’ worth of growth shielded his face beneath his hat and scarf, and he quickly tucked his hand back into the shelter of his armpit as the boat scuffed up onto shore.
“Moment of truth.” Kerri murmured as Dr. Gillis stepped out of the boat and began speaking with him.
Moments passed as Darren had his temperature and blood pressure taken, heart and lungs auscultated, vision and reflexes checked, and then finally, they had him strip down to his pants and socks to step up on the scale.
Kerri hesitated in the motion of bringing her coffee to her lips. Good God, I can count his ribs from here, she thought. She caught the motion of Jim stealing a glance at her face, but she couldn’t look away.
Darren’s pants hung loose around protruding hip bones, and the apexes of shoulders were sharp and startling. What she had first thought were just deep shadows caught between his beard and hat now became evident as heavy dark circles beneath his eyes.
“…Shit…” she breathed.
“No way he’s staying…” Jim echoed, his voice coming out in the same disturbed whisper as her own.
The sound of clicking keys reached them as Darren’s data was entered into the system and then the doctor looked up at him.
“Darren, you are dangerously close to reaching critical body fat loss. You’re almost to the point where we need to consider damage to your heart and vital organs.”
“Almost,” Darren answered quickly. “But not there, right. I’m still in?”
Dr. Gillis took a deep breath but gave a noncommittal nod. “It would make me feel a lot better if you chose to bow out and came with us for some nutritional rehab, but, yes—officially, you are still in.”
Kerri let out a loud groan and let her head sink to her hands.
“Sorry, Ker,” Jim offered, taking one last donut hole. “Better luck next time.”
“He’s determined to kill himself out there one way or another,” she complained, tipping her head partially up to peer between her fingers. “I want the next MedBoat sent out in one week. If we’re lucky, we can fit another one in before the lake freezes solid and we have to switch to chopper.”
Jim nodded, not even bothering to complain about the added cost. “Think he’ll last that long?”
“I have a feeling this one would starve to death before bugging out. One week is enough to tip him over the edge without doing him any long-term harm.” Rapping her knuckles against the desk a few times in thought, she finally rose to move to her own station. “I’ll compile Dr. Gillis’s notes. You good?”
“Good,” he answered, toasting her with his cup of coffee. “Thanks.”
“What do you mean ‘we’ve lost Darren’?” Kerri blurted in response to Jim’s pseudo-greeting as she entered the warehouse the next morning.
“Not him,” Jim allowed, “just his feed.”
Kerri dropped her bag by the door and rushed over to Darren’s monitoring station, his two viewers and Jim working in unison to fix whatever interruption had cut visual to Darren’s cameras.
“How? Everything was fine during field check yesterday, what happened?”
One of Darren’s viewers, Amanda, turned to her, hands on her hips. “We don’t know. He was monologuing to his HeadCam around 3am, talking about something walking around his camp. He thought it might be an elk so he bundled up and headed out of his shelter to look around—”
“—He what?” she interrupted, staring dumbfounded at the young woman, who shrugged with a don’t blame the messenger face. Kerri took a quick breath. “Well, what did you see?”
Amanda’s immediate eye roll turned into a worried frown. “He didn’t take HeadCam with him. Or the Squawk. Crow’s Nest didn’t pick up anything in the immediate camp, but we saw Darren leave his shelter and move off into the woods with his flashlight. About fifteen minutes later, his feed died.”
“And we haven’t been able to get it back up,” Jim confirmed with finality. Then he leaned back with a sigh. “It’s his on-site data link, it’s got to be. That’s the only way we’d lose Crow’s Nest, HeadCam, trail, and Squawk all at once.”
Kerri grimaced. “In other words, it’s nothing we can fix remotely, and he’s been without adult supervision for…” she looked down at her watch, “…four hours?”
“Near enough. I just called Dr. Gillis. I’m sending him and tech up there just as soon as Doc can make it in.”
“I’m going too,” Kerri said, striding back over to her bag and sending a quick text to her roommate.
Jim cocked an eyebrow at her. “I don’t think jeans and a Patagonia jacket are going to cut it at the higher elevations.
“We live in Montana, Jim. I keep a parka in my truck in July. I’m ready to go as soon as the doctor gets here.”
Shaking his head in surrender, Jim turned back to the monitor station. “Your call.”
Kerri pressed her lips tight. Yes, it was. And she had a thing or two she wanted to say to Darren about walking out into the forest at night.
Thorn in my side…