This trip had to be in her Top Ten List of Bad Ideas, Kit realized as she gazed up at the starry sky. Well, she relented; the idea itself had been solid. It was just that it had not provided the solution she had hoped for.
A week alone in the woods, hiking and camping, was supposed to give her insight into what to do with her upended life. She had hoped to reclaim the part of herself that she had misplaced this last year. The part that made good choices with sound judgments. That innate trust in herself had taken a beating this last year. She had been woefully wrong about someone.
Friends understood that she needed this trip to reclaim herself. She needed to prove to herself that her instincts were still functional. That believing in one wrong person did not mean her gut was faulty.
Despite her skills, people had cautioned against this jaunt. However, Kit had been adamant. In order to think, she needed to be alone. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have backcountry experience. She’d led several camping expeditions on this very trail. Since it was off-season, she had assumed she might pass a handful of hikers, but so far, she had been alone. Which was what she had thought she had needed.
She’d spent the last few months in denial and avoidance, piling on activities and visits to ensure that she was rarely alone to worry. This trip had been a way to force herself to look at reality. She had to change careers, but to what? Moving to another state might help, but that involved making a choice. Where to go?
Now that she was over halfway into the outing, she still had no answers. She needed to face the fact that she was no closer to a decision than before. Perhaps she should just go home, open an atlas and blindly pick a town. She looked from the sky down to the contents of her thermal cup. Too bad she couldn’t read tea leaves. Kit sighed and rubbed her forehead. She’d had enough time to see that this trip was not going to give her the insight she needed.
She started the day by looking for anything to break the monotony. She was bored, and, unfortunately, the animals she crossed paths with did not respond to her greetings. Back when her destination had been selected, the idea of being alone to think was appealing. However, right now, she would give anything to have someone to talk to.
Kit snarled up at the clear sky filled with twinkling stars, “C’mon universe! Give me a clue!”
Then she snorted at her own folly. It wasn’t as if the universe had been kind to her during the last year. Why start now?
She sighed and dumped the dregs left from her after-dinner drink. She had put out the campfire, so she cleaned the cup by the glow from her lantern. She was dawdling, and she knew it. The fact that she was putting off a decision itched like a wool sweater. But this was the new, cautious Kit. She would just adjust to the irritation.
Before entering the tent, she spoke one last time to the brilliant sky. “Send me a sign by daybreak. Otherwise, I’m outta here.”
The next morning, Kit admitted to being disappointed. There had been no sign that she was on the right track. No sign that she was finally making good choices. She had awoken to just another cool, foggy dawn. It was time to admit defeat and head back to civilization.
Ugh! She threw her pack across the site, scattering its contents. She finished her power bar and began taking apart her tent. The bright blue and yellow material burned her eyes. She should have chosen black or gray. Those were appropriate colors for a failed trip. She blinked back tears and bared her teeth in frustration. Yes, it was definitely time to get on with a new life. The idea left her feeling hollow instead of energized. She wanted her old life back, damnit.
Kit heard the helicopter long before she spotted it. The whirl of the blades was thunderous. As it came closer, she watched the branches overhead twist violently, loose leaves fluttering down to land around her boots. She tried to identify the bird, but the tree canopy around the campsite was too high for her to see it.
What the hell was it doing, flying so low over the isolated forest? It could be a rescue team, searching for a stranded hiker. She had trekked through the eastern half of the forest for the past week and hadn’t seen a single flare or even a remote sign that someone else was in the area. Only an idiot who deserved to get lost would venture this far out without emergency flares.
Kit pulled a well-worn topography map out of the side pocket of her pack and studied it. There should be a clearing up on the left – that had to be where the helicopter would touch down. If it was a rescue operation, she was trained and could help. Adrenaline flowed through her veins and she laughed. Finally, a distraction!
Stowing the map in a pocket, she scrambled to find her first aid kit.
“Stupid!” she mumbled under her breath. “You are an idiot for throwing your shit around!”
Finally, she spied it lying beside her discarded sweatshirt. Despite the cool temperature, she’d gotten overheated as she’d began to break camp. She tossed the first aid kit and whatever supplies that were nearby into her backpack and threw it on.
She strode forward, hopping over a slender tree that had fallen across the path. Her hiking boots left marks where yesterday’s rain had puddled in the dirt. Once on the nearby trail, she orientated herself and set off. A chuckle escaped her as she trotted down the trail as fast as she could manage without having the pack throw off her balance.
Luckily, the trail was smooth here, with few rocks or tree roots. The closer she came to the clearing, the louder the helicopter noise became. Peering around a thick tree trunk, Kit lowered her head so that the bill of her cap blocked most of the dirt blowing past her. From here, she had a good view of a meadow filled with plump bushes that were beginning to bud. The morning fog collected around the edges, leaving the field easy to see. There was no stranded hiker. No human was waiting for her help among the tall grass. Damn it.
The sound of the rotors was almost deafening this close. More debris flew by as she watched the helicopter descending. Something wasn’t right. The helicopter…there were no rescue agency markings on the outside. The expensive looking machine was all black and shiny like the forewings of a beetle. The sun reflected off the windows so she could not see how many people were inside. Goosebumps rose on her arms as the theme to The Twilight Zone played in her head.
“Oh shit!” She ducked behind a tree in order to avoid being slapped by a stray branch that whizzed past.
Whether it was her over-active imagination or not, she wanted to remain hidden now. Pain stung her palm and she loosened her grip on the knotty tree trunk. She peeked back around to see the helicopter hovering about twenty feet off the ground. Thankfully, it was also now facing away from her. Her eyes narrowed as she noticed that even the tail lacked any identifying numbers.
Not a good sign, Kit thought, and then watched in horror as a body tumbled out of the opened door. It landed in the meadow with a thump, and the helicopter flew away.
Kit froze as the noise faded away with it. What the hell? Was that a dead body? If not, he was certainly injured after that fall. She moved out from behind the tree, keeping an eye on the spot where the body had fallen. The tall grasses swayed in the light breeze but were undisturbed by any other movement.
Even though her heart was about to burst out of her chest, she knew she had to at least find out if he was still alive. True, the person could be dangerous, but there was no way she could just leave.
She slipped off the backpack and pulled a small canister of pepper spray out of the side pocket. There was also a coil of tent rope there. Pulling it out, she thought, better to be prepared.
Quietly, she picked her way through the thick grass and briars toward the lump of black clothing. There was still no movement. Luckily, the body had landed where there were no bushes or rocks, just dense grass that was almost emerald in color. Their wild smell tickled the inside of Kit’s nose as she sucked in air, trying not to hyperventilate.
Please don’t be dead, Kit chanted in her head. Although, if he were a “bad guy,” it might be better if he were dead. While her background working with children meant that Kit was well-trained in first aid and CPR, she was not equipped for anything worse. Like a coma or internal bleeding. Since the only way to call for help was to shoot off a flare that would surely alert whoever had been in that helicopter, she did not think that idea was wise.
As she got closer, Kit saw that the person was indeed a man. He was lying on his back, his head facing away from her. He wore black cargo pants, black boots, and a black jacket. His hair was short, straight and also dark. She didn’t see any traces of gray in his hair and guessed he was probably in his late-twenties, early-thirties – close to her own age.
It’s silly and superstitious, but black is the color of bad deeds, Kit thought as a shiver traced her spine. Why couldn’t he at least be wearing something white? Or a “Hello My Name is Good Guy” label on his jacket? Trying to make as little noise as possible, she edged around his inert body until she could see his face.
The bottom half of his face was covered in short beard stubble, coated in areas with drying blood. Even white teeth peeked through where his swollen lips parted. Upon a closer look, she saw that two of his bottom teeth were crowded, crooked. That small imperfection made her feel more at ease. There was dried blood on his chin, and he was sporting a black eye. That and his busted lip must have happened earlier, judging by the color and swelling.
The guy had taken a beating, but he was still breathing. She could see the rise and fall of his chest under a gray t-shirt. Her own breath whooshed out in relief.
She inched closer, still holding out the pepper spray, her finger steady on the trigger. She nudged his shoulder with the toe of her hiking boot. She took a deep breath, ready to run if he should suddenly grab her.
“Hey!” Kit tried to keep her voice firm and sharp. “Are you okay? Wake up!”
The man groaned in response and turned his head to face the bright blue sky. Kit made an involuntary panicked noise when she saw that the other side of his face was covered in fresh blood.
Cursing freely under her breath, she quickly put down her defense spray and grabbed the rope she had brought. Tying his hands together with the rope, she saw that his knuckles were bruised, the skin abraded on his right hand. She had to wonder who looked worse – the fallen man or the person he’d fought. As soon as she had him secure, she ran back to fetch the first aid kit out of her pack.
Fuck! Where was it? She fumbled through the main compartment where she had thrown the supplies. When she finally found the small nylon case, she dropped it twice before tucking it under her arm. Hurrying back to the injured man, she managed to get the case open and find the pack of sterile gauze.
“This is what you get for being fucking bored,” Kit chastised herself as she tried to find the source of the blood.
Luckily, it did not take long. The small gash was just outside his hairline. She applied pressure with one hand and used more gauze to wipe the blood off his face with the other.
“Wake up,” she pleaded, hoping to see his lashes flicker in response, but the man remained still.
His clothing was non-descript and well-made. Not shiny or cheap. The combat-style boots on his feet were worn. She could see the creases in the leather around his ankles. Was he a cop? Undercover agent? Mercenary? Did such people really exist outside of books and movies?
“Wake up!” Kit patted his arm in frustration as she tried to control her runaway imagination.
She needed to stop reading so many mysteries and thrillers. While her reality seemed surreal now, she had not imagined the helicopter. As far as she knew, it could be headed back for them right now. Discarding the gauze she had been using to wipe his face, she laid her hand on his chest and shook him. Hard muscles moved under her hand as he coughed.
The man groaned, and this time she noticed his eyelashes flicker. She held her breath as his eyes slowly opened. They squinted up into the bright morning sky before shifting to her.
Wow, Kit thought as she reached for the pepper spray with her free hand. Gorgeous eyes. His eyes were a few shades darker than the sky and framed with dark lashes. Even though one eye was bruised and puffy, they were still striking. As they met hers, she was held in place by his gaze as he studied her in confusion.