This is the craziest thing that's ever happened to me. I am shaking so bad I can hardly breathe and I think I'm gonna throw up. I glance back at the others. The cute cowboy winks, and gives me an encouraging smile.
He looks so relaxed.
"Your turn, Lexie," the Old Man says.
I swallow and wipe my sweating hands on my jeans. My legs feel like jelly and I just want to sit down before I pass out.
"Go on," he gives me a gentle nudge with his hand on my back.
I take a very small step forward, toward the yawing hole in the aircraft. "I can't," I say to him.
My voice doesn't seem to work. It comes out in a tremulous whisper, and the loud engine noise drowns it. I'm about to step back and hand in my resignation—anything but this—when I hear the voice. The voice that haunts my nightmares.
"You can do it, Lexie."
A far greater fear grips my whole body. I start shaking all over. It cannot be him.
But I know that voice. I could never ever forget that voice.
I almost collapse. So many things rip through my mind. He can't be here. I know it's not possible, but …
I look down at my hand. My knuckles are white where I’m gripping the back of the seat beside me. I turn and scan the faces behind me. He's not here. It's just the fear of having to jump out of an aircraft that's making me hallucinate.
I try to swallow again. My mouth is too dry and my throat feels like it has a lump the size of a baseball in it.
I search the faces of the people lined up behind me.
His gaze meets mine and I jump and blink and look away.
Oh God, it's him. It really is him. In the khakis. Directly behind the Old Man. He's changed his appearance. But the eyes are still the same.
And the voice.
Everything starts to spin. Take deep breaths. I still can't swallow. "You can do it," the hated voice repeats.
"Just relax and enjoy the beauty of it," the cowboy adds. "Bend your knees when you land, and allow your body to fall or land on your butt. Elbows in. Hands together, on your chest."
"I can't do this," I say, louder now, turning my head around. The Old Man is right behind me staring at me. His hand is on my back again. I have to tell him. I can't go. I can't be with that monster again. Ever.
Before I know what he's doing, the Old Man's other hand connects with my back and he gives me a hefty shove. I'm… Oh God. I'm falling out of the aircraft. I pinch myself. It's just a nightmare. I'll wake up soon and… I feel a jerk and the chute opens. Something about a static line that pulls the cord for you. I remember that part.
I can't catch my breath. I think I'm gonna black out. No. Think, Lexie. Think. What did the cowboy tell me about the landing?
That wasn't really him, was it? I must have been delusional. He couldn't be here. He would be arrested.
The ground is racing toward me at a terrifying speed. Tan areas become fields, the darker blobs dotted over them morph into tree tops. A herd of some kind of animals gallop away from me.
Can't look up.
Here it comes.
I hit the ground on my butt and bounce a couple of times. Then I stop. Thank you God. The parachute is floating around and what am I supposed to do with all these cords? Gotta get out of the harness. I scramble up onto my feet.
Then it hits me. I, Alexa, better known as Lexie, King, just jumped out of an airplane and landed without breaking any bones and without any pre-flight instruction.
Another thought hits me. I am in Africa. O. M. G. What if there are lions or something and they are stalking me? I glance around me nervously and blow out air when I hear a shout and he drops to the ground a few feet away from me.
He lands on his feet and runs a little way before he stops. "Well done, Lexie," he yells. "Piece of cake, hey?"
That voice again. No. It cannot be true. This really is my worst nightmare. I just stand there and stare at him. He starts untangling himself from the webbing.
I am vaguely aware of the others now, spread across the sea of golden grassland, and when I direct my gaze a little further way I can see them all moving around, and their parachutes are flapping in the breeze.
"Let me help you with that." It's the cowboy. Somehow he's still wearing his cowboy hat. He has on tight jeans that show off his very nice ass, cowboy boots and a checked short-sleeve shirt. He grins at me and a dimple appears on one cheek. His dark hair is pushed back off his face and hangs down to his collar at the back. Something about the way he stares makes me get hot all over, despite the circumstances. It's almost like he can see through my clothes. My hair must be a mess. The natural wave in it makes it fluff out around my face more than I would want, most of the time in normal circumstances. I've never jumped out of an airplane before so I don't know what that would do to it. It can't be good, though.
His eyes are strikingly pale green-blue and I think his name is Billy something.
"Billy Murphy," he says, holding out his hand.
"Lexie." I remember his name now. I hold mine out and we shake. His hand is warm and his handshake firm.
"You're trembling," he says. He holds onto my hand a little longer than is really necessary and stares into my eyes.
"Damn right I am," he releases my hand but holds my gaze. I'm still short of breath and it comes out like each word is a new sentence. "Damn. Right. I. Am."
"I don't blame you. I heard you saying you've never jumped out an airplane before. When we were still up there." He points to the sky. He has a very sexy southern accent. "And I know you weren't at the training session. I would have remembered you."
I feel something cold and wet touch my leg and I jump. "Jake? How in hell's name did you get here?" I bend down to stroke Allan Dockery's dog, wondering if I actually hit the ground too hard and died and none of this is really happening.
"Dockery handed him to me just before I jumped," the cowboy says. "Said he'll enjoy running around and having fun."
Jake is a four-year-old chocolate lab who goes everywhere with my boss, the' Old Man', or Allan Dockery. I can't believe he would allow Jake to be away from him for three days, but when I think about it a little more, I realize it is the kind of eccentric thing he would do. First he pushes me out the aircraft and now he sends his dog parachuting into Africa with cowboy Billy Murphy.
Another shout comes from the sky and Joel does a perfect landing on his feet not far from me, with the camera still in his hand. He keeps it rolling. He slips out of the chute and heads over to me.
He turns off the sound, nods at the cowboy, glances at Jake, and then turns his attention to me. "Glad you made it okay, Lex. Let me help you with your chute."
"I got it," Billy Murphy says, and he steps closer and starts un-hooking my harness.
"Hey. Watch where you put your hands," I say when they move dangerously close to my left boob.
"Sorry," he says but his cocky grin tells me he's not sorry at all. He eases the harness off my shoulders and I wriggle out of it.
My hands are still shaking and my legs still feel weak and shaky. I slide down onto my butt and sit cross-legged on the ground. "Ouch," I yelp. "My butt hurts."
Jake sits beside me and licks my face.
Joel hands me the camera. "Hold onto this and I'll help fold the chute up."
I pan the camera and zoom onto his face. He's standing a little way off staring at us. Or at me. Could I be wrong about him?
"You okay, Lex?" I feel myself jump, like I'm guilty of something. "You look white and you're holding the camera real tight." Joel holds out his hands and I hand it back to him.
I force a smile. My heart is still beating so fast I can hardly breathe but I can't tell anyone why. "Did you see how the Old Man pushed me?" I blow out a heavy breath and suck it in again, and wipe my hand over my brow. "I mean." I stop and shake my head. "At least you've jumped before, but I have never ever even thought about it."
"Yeah. I saw it. But hey, you made it."
"Seriously, Joel, I was so scared. I was about to resign. He didn’t give me a chance, though. Just pushed me. Look at my hands. They’re still shaking." I hold one out for him to see.
"I’m glad you didn’t. Resign, I mean. I need you here with me. I can't be the only camera operator. So you’re a little shaky, which is understandable, but you’re okay, right?"
I nod. "I didn’t break anything, if that’s what you mean. My butt is probably bruised, but I’m okay. At least I didn't poop in my pants, but I can tell you I came pretty close."
"We need to find out if everyone else made it okay and nobody is injured," Billy says. "They all had that instruction, and everyone had a health screening, so there shouldn't be any problems."
He—the monster, has moved closer to us. I swallow hard and focus on his face. He looks a lot younger and they—whoever they are—have changed his nose and mouth, and made his cheeks flatter. His hair is dyed to make it look light brown. It's probably really gray by now.
"I don't remember your name," Joel says to him. "Mine's Joel, and this is Lexie. And …" He points a thumb at Billy.
"Billy Murphy," the cowboy says and shakes hands with Joel.
"Paul Varnes. Most people just call me Trip," the monster says and holds out his hand to Joel.
Joel shakes it. "Looks like Lexie and I are gonna be the only camera operators for the first three days," Joel tells him.
I stand up on shaky legs and move away from Trip—that's not his real name. I don't want any part of him to touch me.
Joel throws me a curious glance and I shrug. I try to remember his age. The monster—or Trip as he is now calling himself—must be over fifty now, but he only looks around thirty nine or forty. He stares at me and my skin crawls as I see his gaze taking in everything from my face down to my toes. I feel like I'm being violated all over again and I scream silently. He licks his lips.
"Nice to meet you, Lexie."
I snort. Joel has turned his attention to helping Billy with the pile of parachutes.
"You look good," Trip says.
"Stay away from me," I say, in a low tone through gritted teeth.
He's still staring at me. "At least you're wearing sensible clothes," he says approvingly.
I never thought of my clothes as being sensible. I always wear jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers. It goes with the job.
"It was a pretty mean trick your boss played on us making us leave directly from the party," Billy says to me and Joel. I wouldn't be wanting to go about in this terrain without shoes on. There was no way that girl with the high heels could risk landing with them on, either. Or the dude with the flip flops."
"Yeah, we need to find the cargo bags so we can get their shoes," Joel says. "I can't imagine landing without shoes on, but at least they were given some parachute training."
"Except me," I say.
"We should head over that way," Billy says, pointing to where a group of the others are gathering.
Trip edges closer to me. I lower my voice again. "I mean it. You stay the fuck away from me." I turn my head around to find Joel right in front of me, a puzzled look on his face. I look up into the sky to avoid his stare. A few fluffy white clouds are just hanging there, but beyond them it's as blue as I've ever seen it. I'm in Africa. It's so surreal.
"Let's go," he—Trip—says and starts trudging toward the others. He follows a narrow trail through the waist-high, yellow grass. I walk behind him, making certain I keep my distance, and I can hear Joel and the cowboy tramping behind me. I drop back further.
"Are we gonna keep ourselves totally out of the picture, so to speak?" I say to Joel.
"Yeah, that's the usual plan," he says, turning off the sound on his camera again. "But they can edit us out later if we do get into the pictures." He chin cocks Trip and speaks quietly. "You have a problem with this dude?"
"It's nothing." I say.
I know he doesn't buy that, but he keeps his mouth shut as we keep walking. He'll probably question me again when Billy isn't close enough to hear.
Joel has been a camera operator for seven years to my three, and he always seems to be so much in control, which is one of the big pluses about working with him. He'll be thirty his next birthday, while I'll be twenty three in three weeks' time. He's nice looking, but married, so he's off limits and we've always had a professional relationship. I could understand him getting the job as the head camera operator for this project, but I still don't know how I got to be included. I mean, who wouldn't want to go to Africa and film the latest reality show there? I think Joel must have pulled some strings 'cause he likes working with me. Something like that, anyhow.
Billy Murphy reflected on the situation while he followed behind the camera girl.
She was the best thing about this reality show so far. She was real cute. Everything about her was cute. The way her hair kind of floated around her face, a pretty color, too—kind of brown with lighter bits in it. Her eyes were that deep blue color and you kind of got lost in them when she smiled. He liked watching her ass in front of him. It was tight and round and he wanted to squeeze it. The lawyer dude behind him coughed, and he wondered if he was also watching it and thinking the same thing. He smiled to himself. The dude had to be getting hot in that suit, and his fancy shoes were gonna get ruined.
Billy was glad he had a hat. He looked up at the sky. It might be fall here, but the sun was hot and getting hotter all the time. His boots weren't the best footwear for walking, but they were comfortable and well worn-in.
The dude in khaki's seemed to have taken a leadership position. It didn't bother Billy one way or the other. He knew he was a lot better prepared for these kinds of conditions than any of the others. He had been riding the range and camping out with Pa and his brothers since Mom died. Except for the time he was locked up in juvie, but that was only for nine months.
Okay, so this was Africa and some things were gonna be different, but the wilderness is the wilderness. You had to understand and respect the wildlife and appreciate the fact that they had been living here long before man came along. There didn’t seem to be any signs of human occupation around here. He had asked the pilot about that.
"Aids and other diseases have wiped out a lot of people in this area," the pilot had told him. "The survivors just packed up and left everything behind. Most indigenous people live in the cities where they can get food, jobs and medical help. There's also some talk about a monster that came into their huts at night and attacked them, but they're a superstitious lot at the best of times."
A monster. Billy shook his head and chuckled.
We reach a group of people. "Is everyone okay?" Trip asks.
"I need my shoes, dude," it's the youngest of the contestants, the nineteen year-old guy. He doesn't look like the survivalist type, but nor do any of the others. He's dark, has a short haircut, and he's wearing long khaki shorts, hanging low on his hips, a black Foo Fighters T-shirt, and a baseball cap worn backwards. I don't know what he did with his black-rimmed glasses while he jumped, but he has them on now. I remember he had flip-flops on in the aircraft. He's busy helping a blonde woman out of her parachute harness. Billy takes over the task. I find myself wondering if his hands will go anywhere near her boobs.
"My name's Joel and this is Lexie, my associate camera operator. What's your name," Joel points the camera at the shoeless guy.
"Jared. Jared Harner."
"I have shoes," the blonde woman says. I look down at her feet and hide the smile that wants to bubble up. She is wearing silver heels and must have jumped with them. They're low, not the high stiletto type, but still heels. Bummer for her. She probably would have worn something a lot sturdier on her feet if she had known they weren't going to be given a chance to change before they left.
She's still talking, "It was a low down dirty trick to lure us to the party and then not allow us to go home again. I will sue when we get back to the civilization." She has some sort of accent, and she's pretty, with short, spiked blond hair, blue eyes and high cheekbones. I think she comes from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I wonder if she's a model. She's tall and her clothes look expensive. The skinny jeans fit her perfectly, and the strapless black tube top emphasizes her big breasts. She has a tattoo of a rose around her belly button. She's wearing a lot of bling, too, which probably isn't gonna do her any good out here. I look down at her feet again. Ouch.
Joel smiles at her. And pans across to her face. "What's your name?"
"Lela Sukhova." She tosses her head and smiles at Billy, who is busy folding her parachute.
"Apart from not having any—or the right type of shoes, you guys are okay?" Joel says.
"No," Lela says. "My feet hurt."
There's another woman standing a little behind her. She looks Asian, not as short as I would expect—I'd say around five six, her hair is cut in a page-boy style, with bangs, and she's wearing shiny black slacks and a white satin sleeveless blouse. She has on sandals with no heels. I would say she's close to my age, early twenties.
"I'm Eve Li," she steps forward and smiles at the camera.
"We have to locate the cargo bags," Trip says. He looks at Jared. "I heard Dockery saying he would pack your shoes inside them." He seems to have taken on the role of leader even though past reality shows have proved it not to be such a good idea to put that kind of target on your back.
"And we need to make certain everyone's okay," Billy says.
Trip moves on to the next group who are heading toward us. Joel, Billy and I follow him. Joel still has his camera rolling.
The Hispanic woman is the next person we reach. She has a bright, geometric patterned dress on, and flat pumps. Her black hair is pulled back into a ponytail and the wrinkles around her eyes tell of her age. I think, at the party, she said she was forty seven or eight. The oldest woman in the group. She says her name is Maria Lopez.
The other hot guy bends to stroke Jake. His name is Andrew Riggs. I know that because I made a note of it. He's almost as hot as the cowboy—just a little too preppy for me. He's twenty eight and a lawyer. He's wearing a perfectly fitting navy blue lightweight suit and a long sleeve striped cream and gold shirt, with fancy black leather shoes. His blonde hair is cut neatly and he has a nice build. He's not too tall, probably around five eleven.
"Is everyone here okay?" Billy asks.
"We're fine," Maria replies. "Is everyone accounted for?"
"No, we're slowly rounding them up," Billy says. "Why don't you guys head over there and join that group."
Trip stalks away from us toward the sounds of yelling.
"What's up?" Billy yells back as we draw nearer.
"My leg," comes a man's voice. I think I broke it."
The man, is lying on the ground holding his leg in the air. "It's my ankle," he groans. He's wearing a dark brown suit and work boots, and I guess he's probably in his forties, with black hair not too long, and a weathered brown face. He had an accent, and by his looks I think he's probably Mexican.
"I heard that," Maria says, hurrying toward us. "I'm a nurse. Let me through."
Trip, Joel, Billy and I move aside and allow her to crouch down and examine the man's ankle. Joel walks round to the other side to get a close-up of his leg. The man yells when Maria pulls off his boot, but he lets her examine him.
I eye Joel and he shrugs and raises his eyebrows, camera still rolling.
The nurse turns toward us. "I don't think it's broken. It looks more like it's sprained," she says. "Do we have a first aid kit? I can bandage it up for support."
I look at Joel and Trip answers. "We haven't located the cargo drop yet. Will you stay with him?"
I want to throw up. Isn't it just like him to make out he's the big hero?
The woman nods, and we follow Trip along a narrow little trail through the grass. At the edge of the grassy plain, where a few trees are dotted, we find the rest of them.
It looks like the very tall black dude is a little dazed, the way he's sitting on a boulder rubbing his head. I think at the party he said he was an ex NBA player. "You okay?" Billy says.
"Yeah. I'm okay. I fell and hit my head when I landed." Joel moves round to get a close up from behind.
"I can see a gash in the back of your head," he says.
"Yeah," says Billy. Just take it easy, bro. We're looking for the supplies. Has anyone seen them? There'll be a first aid kit with them." He looks at me for assertion and I nod, although I'm not really sure. I didn't help pack the bag.
The NBA player grimaces at the camera and says his name is Henry Grant.
A tough-looking woman in khaki shorts and work boots is in loud conversation with the well-groomed one, whose beige suite and orange shell look amazingly unwrinkled. Apart from her clothes not being messed, her hair is tied back in some sort of fancy do and it looks as if she's ready for a business meeting. Some people seem to manage that, to look good in any circumstances, but I don't know how.
"My name is Faith Frith," she says slowly as if she wants to make certain Joel can understand what she's saying. She's probably happy she wore those flat pumps to the party. Her perfect hair reminds me of mine and I reach up and pat it. Yep. It's flying out all over the place. I shrug. Not much I can do about it right now. Jake comes up to me and pushes his wet nose against my leg. I crouch down and stroke him.
The nurse is examining the black NBA player's head. "It needs a couple of stitches," she says.
"I wish I had some shoes," a red headed woman laments. She's wearing a strappy, short cocktail dress. Great for a party. She also has bare feet and I remember her very high heel shoes. She's close to me in age and I think she's real pretty with those green eyes, freckles and shoulder length hair. She's perched on a boulder, rubbing her feet. "It hurt when I landed."
I think to myself that those high heels are probably not gonna be much use to her when we retrieve them.
Joel zooms in on her and she says her name is Jade Gannon.
"I think we've accounted for everyone now," Trip says, glancing back toward the other group, which is more than a hundred yards away from us now. He looks up into the sky. "It's gonna get hot soon, so I think we should all gather here in the shade. If someone can go call them, I'll keep looking for the cargo bags."
"I think I saw something like that," says the redhead, Jade. "I wondered what it was. It looked like a big brown bag with its own parachute."
"Yeah. That would be one of them. There were two of them. Where did you see it?" Joel says.
"It was over that way. Quite far from here." I look in the direction she's pointing and take in the scenery for the first time. We're on a grassy plain that seems to go on forever, with rolling hills and clumps of trees. There are also some outcroppings of granite boulders. I look up into the sky and once again I think about how blue it is.
"Are you sure about that?" Trip says. "That you saw a bag?"
"I… I think so." She pulls her knees up and rubs a foot.
All around me, I hear strange bird calls, and insects that sound like crickets or cicadas, or maybe both. The air is not too humid, but Trip is right, it is getting hot out here in the sun. There's no sign of the herd of animals that I saw running away when I was coming down in the parachute. The air smells kind of earthy.
"I'll go call the others." The tough looking woman starts tramping over to them. "Name's Sam Fillwood, by the way," she yells back over her shoulder to anyone who's listening. "I drive a sixteen-wheeler."
Joel is standing beside me. "Pity we don't have two cameras, but we should go with him," he chin-cocks Trip.
I nod and grit my teeth. We follow him through the grass.
How could life have done this to me? I could not have imagined this in my worst nightmares, and believe me, I have bad nightmares. I had been so sure he was gone, I mean, really gone forever. I know now how naïve that was. He will never be out of my life. He would be arrested on sight if he came anywhere near me back home. I would make darned sure of it. But now he's changed his appearance, maybe he figured he could sneak back into the US and… and what? Whatever. Now he has found a way to get close to me again. He couldn't give me up. Ever. I should have known that.
As soon as the Old Man gets here I'll have to leave. I'll quit my job if I have to, and leave. I can't risk being anywhere near him. He'll find a way to… Oh God no. I almost gag.
This is not the worst day in my life. That day is imprinted on my brain and will never go away. But being stuck here in the middle of nowhere in Africa with that man, the man who took my childhood from me is as bad as it can get.
"I wish I could be sure we're heading in the right direction," Trip mutters.
"Me too," says Joel. "But we need everything that's in the bags. The Old Man—that is Allan Dockery—said he would only be back in three days."
Joel looks back at me and lowers his voice, "He's totally dropped us in the crap," he says. "I mean, this is crazy. There's nobody to tell these dudes what they're supposed to be doing. Are there gonna be teams? Are they all supposed to compete as individuals?"
"What about leaving Jake with us?" I say, leaning down to stroke him. I love dogs and they seem to know it. Jake is sticking with me. Maybe it's because I always pet him when we're taking a break back home at the studios in Los Angeles. I've been planning to get a dog. I'm not allowed pets in my one bedroom studio apartment in Glendale, but I've been searching for a farm cottage, and I think I found one. The lady who owns the property said she would know in six weeks, which would have worked out perfectly if I had stayed for the show. It doesn't really make any difference now that I have to leave.
Joel has turned his attention back to following Trip. He doesn't know the half of it. I move up closer behind him. "I know. This is totally insane. I still can't believe he pushed me like that. I'm still mad at him for doing that. I could have been killed. And what does three days really mean? Do they start today, or does he only start counting tomorrow?"
We fall silent and I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. It's Sunday today so the Old Man could get here on Wednesday or would it be Thursday? Meantime, what does he expect me and Joel to do?
I've already decided I'm quitting and leaving this place. Maybe I should tell Joel about Trip—that he's not who he says he is—but then I would have to tell him about … about my past. I can't do that. I can't ever tell anyone and Trip knows it.
It's getting hot and I'm beginning to sweat. The terrain is hilly and there are blue, hazy mountains in the distance. I notice sweat marks on the guys' shirts. I remember then, that this is Africa and I glance around me nervously. "Do you think there are any dangerous wild animals here? I saw some when I was up there." I point upwards to the sky.
Joel doesn't answer for a few seconds. "Nah. I don't think that crazy old man would have put us in that kind of danger. He's got to know something about this area."
I'm not as confident as him.
"I did some reading up on the Internet," Joel continues. "You heard him tell us we're in a country called Zimbabwe. Apparently although it's tropical, it's cooler here because we're close to the mountains. There shouldn't be too many bugs at the moment because it's fall, and they'll been gone during winter. It even gets frosty up here because it's high in elevation."
Joel always seems to know everything. It's weird that this is fall time. April is in the springtime at home.
Trip stops and turns to face us. "Look," he says, "why don't we separate and each of us go and check in a different direction? We have more chance of finding the bags that way. I think Dockery said there would two of them, and the redhead only saw one."
I feel my brow wrinkle. Go out there alone? In the African wilderness? Not me. Not even with Jake by my side. "I have a better idea," I say. "Why don’t we go get some of the others to help?"
"Okay," Trip says. "Go and call them." He starts walking again.
Joel looks at me. I hesitate. He keeps staring at me. "Okay, I say. But if anything gets me it'll be on you. Come on Jake." I turn around and hurry back along the faint pathway we've made in the grass. I hear Jake padding behind me and it does kind of comfort me.
The others are all together in the shade of a clump of tall trees. I'm breathing hard by the time I reach them.
"Trip, the dude in the khaki's," I pant, "asked if anyone wants to help locate the cargo bags." I point at the redhead, "She says she saw one of them drop over that way."
I turn to point out where Trip and Joel are. My foot hooks on something and I crash to the ground and bite the dust.
"You okay?" a voice says. I look up to see Billy Murphy peering into my face. He has a worried look on his, and he grabs my arm. "Let me help you up," he says. Jake is standing over me, whining. "It's okay, buddy," Billy says to him, and pats him on his head, and then cocks an eyebrow at me.
"I'm fine," I scramble to my feet with Billy's help, and feel my face going red. Billy is still holding onto my arm and everyone is staring at me. "Really, I'm just clumsy." I dust off my clothes and bend forward to look at what's making my knee sting.