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The Program

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The sun had set hours ago. The hot night air was stagnant and thick with humidity. Time flowed painfully slow in the sticky summer evening. Mosquitos buzzed among the chirping of crickets. Kellen’s eyes settled absent-mindedly on a cluster of stars until he drifted off to an unrestful sleep.

Kellen was stationed at a wilderness camp. He and six other teens had been shipped off by their families to live eight grueling weeks in a forest in West Virginia. Most of the other boys his age had been skipping school, were violent to their peers, or participating in other behaviors deemed destructive enough by their families to warrant some “intense” therapy. Kellen never understood why his parents had shipped him off. He had only skipped school a handful of times (something expected of most teenagers), and he never got in trouble at school. He was not violent. In fact, he was profoundly sad.

Kellen was always a rather sullen child. He openly admitted to his parents that he often felt depressed. Their divorce only exacerbated his feelings of loneliness and despair. When he wasn’t feeling overwhelmed by sadness, he was gripped by a hot knot of anxiety in his stomach. Kellen did his best to brush the feeling off, but the longer it lingered, the farther up it traveled. Eventually his anxiety gripped at his throat like a choke-hold and he would fall into a panic.

His parents thought this camp would be good for him. They had agreed that it would be a place for him to get therapy while also enjoying a camp setting and “the great outdoors”. The young counselors promised their boy would come home a new person – someone pleasant and healthy in both body and mind. It sounded like the perfect fix for their only son.

The incessant chirping of birds soon filled the air. Kellen pried his eyes open. Sunlight had barely touched the tree tops. The sky had turned an eerie shade of purple as the sun loomed on the horizon. His mouth was dry from thirst. His lips cracked and bled anytime he moved his mouth. He had become accustomed to a new stomach pain: hunger. Kellen could clearly picture his last hot meal. He was at the table with his mother. She was talking about packing his bags for the camping trip, but none of that had really registered for Kellen. He actively ignored her, pretending that if he didn’t know what was happening, he wouldn’t have to go at all. Instead he focused on the pot roast she had made. The meal melted against his fork. Potatoes and carrots swam in a thick, rich gravy. Just the memory of the meal made Kellen’s whole body ache.

His hunger pains snaked up from his gut to his throat, until they swirled and tightened, creating a rattlesnake-like noise from inside his esophagus. The rest of the campers looked as ragged as Kellen felt. None had eaten or drank enough to stay nourished since the day they arrived. Twenty days into the trip, and the small amounts of filtered water and various rodents or insects they had hunted had not been enough to keep them healthy to keep up the journey.

The therapist who accompanied the campers and counselors was the only person on site with an emergency radio. No cell phones received reception in the thick brush of the forest. The boys had not had contact with their families since they had arrived. The counselor refused to give access to the radio. It was becoming clear to Kellen that this was not the trip his parents had signed him up for.

Hunger, thirst, and a lingering fog of depression hung over Kellen. The rest of the boys had gotten themselves up from the ground. Some were scrounging for anything edible. The largest boy (in both weight and height) was Robbie. Robbie had come to the program because he had been quite violent with his peers in school. Upon arrival, Robbie had boasted about his strength and endurance. He assured anyone within earshot that he would make it through the program without a problem.

Robbie was a shadow of the boy he had been. He sat stone-faced in the dirt, staring unblinkingly at the ground. Occasionally he would swipe at a moving branch, hoping to catch anything he could potentially eat. His skin hung off his weary body. His face had become sunken and shadowed. Kellen approached him and offered to help him look for food. Robbie turned his haggard face toward Kellen and opened his mouth to speak. As he tried to force an audible response, his throat cracked and he began to cough. His teary eyes looked up to Kellen, filled with fear and despair. Though they looked nothing alike, Kellen could not shake the thought he was looking into a mirror.

One of the counselors made his way to a large rock. He climbed atop and clapped his hands loudly and called out to the group. He announced that the campers would be granted a full meal, cooked on a campfire by one of the counselors. He then explained that only one camper would be able to eat. They could choose to share, or nominate one camper to eat the whole meal themselves. All they had to do was make it to the spring a quarter mile ahead to bring back some water to boil. Along the way, they would agree who would get to eat.

A sudden surge of energy burst through the boys. Kellen turned towards Robbie, and their eyes met. Robbie narrowed his gaze at Kellen in warning, before shoving him to the ground and taking off toward the creek. A few other campers helped Kellen up before following Robbie in suit.

Robbie tripped through the forest with heavy footsteps. The other campers easily followed Robbie. He sounded like a frantic buck in the forest, tearing his way through brush and leaves towards the opening at the creek. In his haste, Robbie had neglected to bring any sort of container to carry the water. He hopelessly cupped his hands in the creek, only to watch the water slowly drain from his palms and trickle back down into the spring.

The rest of the group agreed they could not overpower Robbie, even in his withered state. They would nominate him to eat the meal on the condition that he agreed to share. Kellen called out to Robbie, telling him to stay at the creek and wait for the group.

Instead, Robbie turned around wildly. He rushed toward the group and began shoving the others to the ground and patting them down in search of a container for water. Kellen tried to reason with Robbie. As he whisked his hands over the other campers, Kellen explained that if he calmed down and listened to the others, he would understand their plan. The words rang hollow in Robbie’s head. He was fixated on completing his task at hand. He was so overcome with rage and hunger that it was useless to try to reason with him.

Robbie’s face turned from a flushed pink to an angry red. As he moved down the line of campers, his frustration grew. Kellen, at the end of the line, was the only one with any forethought to grab a canteen. Robbie screamed at the other boys an incomprehensible mess of ugly words. Foamy spittle dripped from his face as his eyes turned wilder and wilder.

Kellen forced himself to stand and face Robbie. Robbie was rummaging around on the ground when Kellen pounced on him. The other campers suddenly jumped in, and in moments Robbie was on the ground. The other boys began to rain down rocks and fists on Robbie’s head. Kellen even took a hard swing at Robbie’s face, just for good measure.

When the excitement settled, the boys broke apart. Deep, staggered breaths permeated the air as the campers huffed to catch their breath. When the adrenaline had finally drained from his body, Kellen fell to his knees. First, he looked up. The others with him were covered in grime and dirt. You could count the ribs on most of them. They were broken and bruised, and totally lost and confused in the woods.

That’s when Kellen saw what had happened. He slowly drew his eyes to the ground and was met with the sad, gaping mouth of Robbie. His eyes were frozen wide in fear, but any light behind them had been snuffed out. His forehead was crushed. Kellen yelped and jumped to his feet. Every person at the creek was splattered in thick, sticky blood. Some of the other campers were washing their hands in the water.

Just then, a pair of the other boys called out to Kellen to bring the canteen. It was as if they had not registered that they had just killed Robbie. Kellen tried to appeal to the group, clutching the canteen tightly. He pleaded with the others to call the counselor for help. If this was not an emergency, then nothing was.

The other campers exchanged glances. They asked again for the canteen, and when Kellen refused, they took a collective step toward him. Kellen dropped the canteen and fled back towards the counselors. He rushed through the woods, his feet flying faster than he thought they could. His chest burned as he sucked in oxygen to keep his muscles moving. Quickly, his side began to cramp. Pushing through the physical pain, he managed to make his way back to the counselors and the therapist with the emergency radio.

Kellen tried to explain the situation through his wheezy gasps. The young counselors patted Kellen on the back and offered him some bottled water. He flailed the water back at them, screaming for them to go and find Robbie. The therapist emerged with his large, yellow emergency radio. He walked away from Kellen and the counselors. He had traveled too far out of earshot, but Kellen listened to his whispers through the radio.

The therapist sauntered back to Kellen and the counselors, clearly not concerned with the loss of a camper. It was becoming quite obvious that this program was not what they had signed up for. As the therapist and counselors exchanged a few snide glances, Kellen brought himself back to his feet. A familiar panic began to fill his stomach. His throat began to constrict and his breathing picked up the pace. His eyes darted from one counselor to the next. None of them had even blinked an eye when he explained what had happened by the water.

Panic evolved into an overwhelming fear. Kellen nervously informed the others that he was going back to find the other campers. None had made an attempt to come back to camp. A counselor extended his reach toward Kellen, and Kellen took off toward the thick woods. He raced over the uneven territory. As he trampled toward the clearing at the creek, he heard a crackling behind him.

Kellen whipped around to face the other campers who were hiding in the brush. Their sunken features and hungry eyes were staring out from behind leaves and branches. Their unmoving eyes and scraggily appearance reminded Kellen of a pack of starving mongrels. He unthinkingly took a step backward from them; Kellen fell backwards, bracing himself with the palms of his hands. He landed on a soft, wet pile. Looking down, a horrid realization – more terrifying than the unemotional counselors—overcame him. His legs were straddling Robbie’s crumpled head. His eyes looked up at him, as if to ask Kellen why he did not stop the others.

Beneath his seat he felt a cold and wet liquid seep through his shorts. As the shock wore off, Kellen shot up from the ground, revealing the rest of poor Robbie’s fate. His sagging skin had been cut away from his abdomen, revealing his pink innards. There was evidence that multiple boys had cut away at Robbie’s meaty muscle. Kellen’s face drained of color as he turned towards the other campers.

It was then that Kellen noticed the smell of smoke and a gamey smell of cooking meat accompanied the smoke. It had been a crackling of fire that Kellen had heard when he first came back to the scene. Realizing now that the others planned to stay by the water, he pleaded with the others to return to camp. He promised he would not say anything to the counselors, if they would just agree to leave with him.

The boys encircled Kellen. His panic overwhelmed him as he tried to push past the ring of boys. He was pushed down to the ground, and immediately they descended upon him. Kellen kicked and flailed to fight them away. It wasn’t until Kellen agreed to stay with them out of his desperation to stop the pain that they stopped their barrage of assaults.

They helped Kellen to his feet and lead him back towards the fire they had built. Robbie’s lifeless body still laid by the water. One of the boys went towards it as the rest of the group showed Kellen to their makeshift camp. With unknown miles between himself and the nearest town, and the threat of starving with the counselors, Kellen resigned himself to stay with the group. He knew it was hopeless – if he protested, he would meet the same fate as Robbie. He let out a heavy exhale in hopes of alleviating the depression in his heart.

That night they shared their first hot meal since their arrival at the program.

Written by BlizzardLemon
Content is available under CC BY-NC

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