Chapter 6: The Well-Check
Kerri ducked beneath the swirling chopper blades as she, Dr. Gillis, and Josh from tech, scurried toward the boat waiting for them on the pebbled shore, motor purring and ready, one of the Bugout crew at the helm.
Bugout was stationed about a mile away from Darren’s camp, on the other side of the large mountain lake. Revving into motion, Kerri turned her face away from the biting wind as the boat jetted across the surface, its passage disturbing the placid blue waters and silence of the surrounding peaks.
Finally, the boat skidded up to Darren’s camp. Kerri recognized the ramshackle teepee-style shelter and oversized firepit from regular viewing of his Crow’s Nest cam, but Darren was nowhere in sight.
Kerri’s stomach gave an uncomfortable twist. Surely he’d heard the boat coming. The chopper, too, for that matter. Yesterday he’d met the MedBoat with time to spare.
“Josh, you know where the tower is?”
Josh nodded, gesturing off toward the east end of the camp. “Yeah, I’m good. You guys go ahead.”
Jerking her head toward Dr. Gillis, Kerri motioned for him to follow.
She had watched the Crow’s Nest footage of Darren leaving camp, and she hurried over in the direction he’d left, early that morning before dawn. Reaching the edge of the clearing, she paused, looking down. She searched the area until Darren’s trail popped out of the surrounding landscape. A turned stone here, a scuffed patch of moss there, finally, a partial boot print in some soft earth had her squatting down to investigate.
“Darren!” she called out, lifting her head from the tracks and scanning the surrounding trees.
“…Shit…” she muttered, reaching in her pocket and slipping the spare HeadCam over her brow. “Josh did say the mobile data link will get me to Jim, right?”
Dr. Gillis, standing a few feet back from where she was crouched, nodded, eyes scanning the woods as well.
Slipping the earpiece over the rim of her right ear, she clicked it on, then the camera. “Alright… Well, moment of truth.”
Nothing happened for a moment, then a series of beeps became audible. A click of feedback, then, “Ker? You there?”
Kerri breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m here. Eyes and ears?”
“Both,” Jim’s voice confirmed after a short delay. “You’re live.”
“Alright, we’re live,” she announced for the doctor’s sake. “Let’s see what Darren’s gone and gotten himself into.”
She followed his trail out into the snow-dusted vegetation. New flurries had fallen again last night, replacing the melt from the heavier fall that had come a couple of weeks ago. Her boots made a familiar soft crunch with each step, the sound of the idling boat disappearing in the snow muffled branches of the densely wooded copse.
Kerri stilled, holding a cautionary hand up to Dr. Gillis, trudging along in her wake.
“What do you hear, Ker?”
Orienting to the north, she heard the distinctive sound of an axe falling again. “Sounds like someone chopping wood. –Darren!” she called again.
No answer, just another heavy blow echoing through the trees.
Shaking her head, she oriented on the sound and pushed forward.
She finally caught a shadow of movement through the trees and hurried to push through the low growing conifers to the sight of Darren, shirtless amid the snow, wiry back glistening with a sheen of sweat as he swung his axe in an effortless arc down to cleave a fat log in two.
His body is starving and he’s wasting energy splitting logs? “Darren!” she called out, pushing her way into the small clearing. “What the hell? Didn’t you hear us calling?”
Jim’s voice crackled in her ear. “Well, uh… he seems fine.”
Kerri knew what he meant. Darren stood strong and upright, not the shrunken, shivering, cadaverous specimen they had witnessed just yesterday. Had it all been for show?
The axe head drifted down to Darren’s side, but he didn’t turn. He simply lifted his head and took a deep breath through his nose. “Did I win?”
Kerri hesitated. His voice sounded much different than it normally did on camera; rough, gravelly, and much deeper than when she’d first met him via video chat from West Virginia.
“N-no…” Then she shook her head, collecting herself. “Your tech is screwing up. Didn’t you notice your connection was down?” She made a motion with her arm toward his hand-held, wedged in the fork of a tree, its network indicator flashing a bright red.
“Nope,” came his casual answer as he bent to place another log on the chopping block.
Grinding her teeth, Kerri moved to step around in front of him, jumping back when he didn’t abort his swing. Freaking asshat! “Your feed went down early this morning, right after you left your shelter to investigate night noises without your camera,” she fumed, stressing each word. “What were you thinking? You know the competition rules. Go nowhere unmonitored. What part of nowhere translated into nightscapades? You could have—”
But she cut off as he turned to face her fully and she saw the long smear of blood traveling from cheek to chest.
“…Holy shit…” Jim’s voice was a distant echo in her ear.
“Jesus, Darren… What happened?” She had to stop herself from reaching up and taking his chin in her hand, balking at the predatory look in his eyes when she moved closer.
“Nightscapades earned me a hare. Didn’t bother to cook it.”
Blinking, Kerri spared a glance back at Dr. Gillis, who was taking in Darren’s upright stature and improved vigor with open disbelief.
“…That’s… That’s how you get parasites, Darren,” she ventured on, voice losing some of its bravado in the wake of his strange behavior. “You know better.”
He took a step toward her, much closer than she was comfortable with, his gaze locking on her eyes as his height eclipsed hers. “Hunger will do funny things to a man.”
Kerri felt her breath catch at the look in his eyes, and she suddenly felt very much like a hare, herself.
“Kerri, I want you out of there. This guy’s not acting right.”
Kerri was already having the same thought, but when she moved to step away, Darren’s nostrils flared and he mirrored her motion.
Suddenly, Dr. Gillis was at her side, clapping Darren sharply on the wiry meat of his shoulder. “Congratulations on your catch, son. That hare might be the difference in you winning this thing.”
Darren seemed to blink himself out of some sort of fog as he looked down at the doctor. “…Winning…”
“And it looks as if Josh has got your tower up and running again,” Doc went on, tipping his head toward Darren’s camera, now glowing a bright, steady green.
Darren turned to follow his gaze, and when he turned away, Dr. Gillis took a sideways step, placing himself firmly between her and Darren. Kerri took advantage of the opportunity and backed up a pace while Darren was occupied.
“Now,” Doc went on, voice low and calm. “Do you think you need to accompany us to the boat for a vitals check, or do you feel fit to continue as is?”
“I’m fit,” came Darren’s immediate answer.
“Yes, that certainly seems the case. Alrighty! Well, we’ll leave you to your task then. Only two others remain, you know. You’re well on your way to winning this.”
Kerri cast the doctor an incredulous glance. He shouldn’t be telling a contestant that. But when Dr. Gillis’s hand came up behind his back and began waving her away, she suddenly took his meaning.
“Now, why don’t you take a moment to tell your viewers there was a break in your recording. We’ll get out of here so it doesn’t look like you’ve had any interference in your stay.”
Without looking back, Darren moved off to the camera resting in the trees.
Slowly, but with an increasing need to run, Kerri backed out of the small clearing, Dr. Gillis holding his position blocking Darren’s line of sight with her.
Once safely in the shelter of the trees, Kerri turned and began marching swiftly back in the direction of the boat. “What was going on back there, Doc?” she asked, her anxiety causing her voice to quaver a bit.
The doctor didn’t immediately reply, just shuffled through the snow with a rapid step, keeping easy pace with her now where he’d had trouble matching her stride on the way in.
Finally, he asked, “Did you happen to do background checks on your contestants before putting them out here?”
Kerri shot him a glance, relaxing a bit when the sound of axe fall rose behind them. “No, why?”
Dr. Gillis shook his head. “Isolation can do strange things to the human psyche—delusions, mental impairment, thoughts of hopelessness… That, coupled with starvation and the knowledge that he had likely failed in his ambition doubtless put Darren in a pretty dark place last night. But, a blast of protein and red meat flowing in his veins, the thrill of a successful hunt—that will also do strange things to the mind.”
Dr. Gillis gave an uncomfortable little shrug. “I’ve seen that look in some men before—bad men, psych cases—but psych is all about chemical imbalance. Darren is not only dealing with nearly thirty days of extreme isolation, but his body is burning its own fat and possibly muscle for energy. That’s going to cause all sorts of mess with the neurotransmitters floating through his brain—destabilizing his mood, impairing his thinking. Now, toss a fat rabbit into that mix and I’ll bet Darren is feeling downright primitive. His body is burning through that hare like yours would a cup of sugared espresso. His mood is lifted, his energy is spiking—likely experiencing a spike in libido…” he added, casting a meaningful look in her direction.
“…Jesus Christ…” But Kerri ignored Jim’s whispered remark, giving the doctor a horrified look.
“All I’m saying is, we didn’t need to be hanging around in that clearing with him any longer. As I’ve said, I’ve seen that look before. And you, my dear, were prey.”