03 Nov Alone
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"Alone"Written by 5yn
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Estimated reading time — 20 minutes
Part 1: Good Will Hunting
I’m a producer for Alone, the TV show on History. This story is about a participant we had in season 2, whose footage we had to cut. I’ve never felt comfortable talking about this before, especially because it opens me up for liability. After all, giving away TV show secrets is a bit of a faux pas, especially a survival show. But I feel like people should know the truth.
One of the things you may not know about the show is we often have nearly double the number of participants actually part of the show, and in editing, we choose the most entertaining people and only include them in the actual season. That way we can weed out the boring people, super survivors who could literally last years alone (who we have to “force tap,” or otherwise make them quit), and also get rid of the ones who can’t even handle a single night alone in nature. That happens a surprising amount. But these people don’t make for entertaining TV.
Season 2 took place on Vancouver Island, a densely-forested land with just as much fish as it has rain. The weather – the chill, the numbing wind – took care of most of our contestants. And if you watched the season, you’d know the “winner,” Dave, lasted 66 days. Long, but, as I said, there were other “super survivors” who lasted longer. We let them stay out longer as an experiment to see just how long it might take. These men – all the women had tapped by then – had built impressively sized cabins from the surrounding forests. All except Will, that is.
That was his name. When Will sent us his application and video, he seemed like a normal guy. Well, for a survivalist. He was the kind of guy who came off as a good guy to know both at the local bar and should the apocalypse hit. The kind of survivalist who hunts for sport but you know could really stay out there for some time. He had professional training, would take others on managed hunts, and spent a lot of time in nature preserves camping by himself. Really personable and had the looks for the show, too. We knew he’d be popular.
But the image wouldn’t last. When we picked up the footage on day 90 and reviewed it, we found a very different person.
Describing his story isn’t exactly easy. See, one thing about the show is these guys are really alone. Like, really alone. We drop them off, give them their chosen 10 items of survival gear (knife, ax, tarp, fishing line, stuff like that – they get to choose the 10 items themselves), video equipment, and say good luck. Oh, and there’s the emergency satellite phone they use for when they finally tap. It also allows us to track their movements. Usually, at least. Of course, out in the wild, with tall, dense forests and the typical cloud cover of Vancouver Island, connections can be tricky. We leave them be until they hit the button to come home except in the cases of super survivors. And for Will.
Days 1-38 were normal for Will. Compared to the others, he struggled no more or no less. Typical footage of failed fishing, some successful drop-falls (a way to catch small rodents). But he wasn’t desperate enough yet to eat insects. From the looks of it, he was doing well. No real mental struggle. Not even a single “night scare,” which is what we call the footage participants take when they’re awakened by a rummaging animal – usually a mouse or other small rodent, but sometimes a wild hog or bear gets nosy. He’d talk about missing his family – his parents and brothers and sister – but every participant does that. But something happened on day 58 that seemed to change Will.
We know something happened on day 58 because when Will reappeared on footage on day 59, he was a markedly different person. After not having taped anything since day 39, the footage seemed to come at daybreak, with Will’s face covered in blood. We figure it must have been deer blood, as he had been tracking a small group of deer that seemed to live maybe a quarter to a half-mile away. He hadn’t been too concerned about the local bears. They’re big and dangerous, but he had only seen one in his entire time there, and wasn’t planning on hunting any, and the other game was too small to be worth the energy. He was stringing up his kill; too blurry to make out the animal but, as I said, we’re pretty sure it was a deer. He hadn’t cooked it yet, and we couldn’t see if he had started a fire. It was just him across the camp, tying the animal up to a tree so he could gut it. The video seemed to come on and off without any movement from him at all; none of the “pushing the button on the camera” that you would typically see when starting or ending a shot. It just stopped. The video lasted 49 seconds.
The participants are supposed to tape every day – and preferably as much as possible – so that we can splice together a ton of shots. Nature shots, instructional shots to show how they created their cabins, weapons, or the trinkets like necklaces that some of them enjoy making to pass the time. The next video from Will came on day 70.
Will didn’t look like Will. Up until day 58, he had kept a pretty clean-shaven face. He wasn’t a big fan of beards, and took care to use his survival knife to cut as close as possible to keep that quarterback-turned-model image we saw in that application video. But now he looked old. Dirty. Dried blood flaking from his face. Newer blood than day 58, but old enough to where it shouldn’t be there hours or days after hunting and eating the kill. It was just different. He spoke, though. He apologized for not taking video as much as he should’ve. Said hunting was a little more difficult lately, and he felt like he was losing weight too fast. That he would dream of steak and of prior hunts and of family and of Thanksgiving dinner. He thought about tapping but said it was too late for that. The video ended.
As he had promised, the video started back up on day 76. This time he was ranting – yelling – at the forest. He talked about his food rotting too quickly despite the freezing temperatures, not being able to find any “others” to eat, and starving. This was far past frustration we typically see from participants. This was anger. Deep-seated anger. The footage ended abruptly after he threw his hatchet at the camera.
He didn’t tape again until day 82. But this wasn’t normal footage. Not even like before. The video came on, and it’s just him standing there. Silent. Still. Not in his tent. In the middle of camp, though the video was zoomed in closely on his face. No blood anymore, and no movement from him, either. Not to turn on the camera. Not to make sure the shot was in focus. Just standing. This continued for three days. We thought the video must’ve inadvertently paused, but I am not joking. We even checked the GPS records on the emergency phone. For three days Will stood in his camp without movement. Trees around him shaking in the wind. Rain and snow falling from the sky. Will remained still and looking off into the distance until the video shut off in the afternoon of day 85. The battery and video card on the camera should’ve run out two-and-a-half days prior, but they didn’t. It captured it all. We never did see or even hear any animals in the footage for those three days, though, which was weird.
To be honest, we aren’t sure what happened to Will. You see, we arrived at his camp on day 90, and Will wasn’t there. That’s not all that uncommon; sometimes we get there and they’re off hunting. We checked the GPS for the phone, but it was nowhere to be found. We waited in camp all day until it started getting dark. We had already loaded Will’s belongings, including the camera equipment, into the boat. A couple of guys stayed behind in a tent to see when he’d show up. He never did.
About 3 miles away down the coast, another suspected “super survivor,” Benjamin, had made camp. In his last scene, he’s fishing along the coast, stick-as-a-rod in hand, and line in the water. He looks up from the river towards the camera, white-faced and wide-eyed, and the video abruptly stops.
It was day 58. We never found him, either.
Part 2: Voices
You’d think that having been a producer for History’s Alone TV show since the beginning, you’d just about seen everything by now, but sometimes things happen that surprise you, things that you just can’t find an explanation for.
Dennett was your prototypical Alone contestant, a somewhat gruff-but-good-looking guy who grew up hunting and fishing, and ran his own “naturalist survival” outfit in the backwoods of Maine. He taught people how to survive in the woods for days, weeks, or even months, but did it in even more of a naturalist way, or at least that’s what he claimed. Instead of bringing manufactured tools along, he insisted on bringing only tools he made while out in the wild. But what made Dennett really different from most contestants were the voices.
It’s not that he claimed he could hear voices; it’s that we could. Dennett would take hours of video footage, as he’s required to, except that there seemed to be other voices in addition to his, almost like an echo. At first, we figured he might’ve been trying to cheat, and he had brought other “teammates” along with him. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. We’ve had more than a few cases of contestants trying to get an advantage by doing anything between hiding supplies in the forest and tending to them off-camera, to actually getting supplies airdropped to them from a small plane they arranged before taping. So I wasn’t surprised we were seeing something new here, with a guy somehow arranging for friends or teammates to join him, and then just keep them off-camera.
Except there were no friends or others around him. After we heard the voices and suspected he was cheating, the next time we went in for a medical visit we also put up a camera around his camp, unbeknownst to him, and streamed the footage into our camp, but there was no one to be found.
At this point, we figure there must’ve been a problem with the equipment we gave Dennett. So we switched all of the gear out. Everything. All the cameras, memory cards, even the tripods. Everything.
Except the voices didn’t go away.
Instead, when we reviewed the footage after each visit, the voices seemed to get louder and louder, though we still couldn’t make out what they were saying or what the source was. All we could do was review the tape and try to remove the ambient voices, as we started calling them. But things got more complicated as the voices became louder.
The voices, it seemed, were coming from Dennett. Where before the voices were low enough that we thought maybe even we were a bit crazy for even thinking they were voices, now it was clear. As Dennett would speak to the camera, the other voices were talking at the same time, but were not exactly intelligible, at least not at first. We figured maybe there’s a chance this guy is just duping us with some kind of ventriloquist-like act, looking for his 15 minutes of fame. Or maybe he was legitimately crazy, and was having some type of psychological event. Watching the tape became more and more distracting, so much so that we started simply writing him off as a participant. We’d still do medical checks, including a new mental health check that he passed each time, but we wouldn’t dedicate as much time to editing his footage as we would some other contestants.
But it was hard not to watch. Admittedly, some guys would laugh at the footage, but I was more sympathetic. This man was seemingly having some type of odd psychological breakdown, or some appearance of schizophrenia or something, but was somehow passing every mental health check we gave him. We had no idea what was going on. But the laughing soon stopped.
Dennett’s voices became clearer. While he was otherwise doing a self-interview, explaining how hungry he was after not having had any luck with fishing the past few days, the voices were saying far more disturbing things.
“We need help,” it said in a loud, pleading voice. “Please help us.”
Another voice simultaneously exclaimed, “GET HIM OUT OF HERE. MAKE HIM LEAVE.”
Except what was heard was different for everyone who watched the tape. I might hear Dennett and one voice, and other person heard Dennett and another voice. No one seemed to hear exactly the same thing. Just different voices, or slight variations, or different things entirely.
We visited Dennett that night, and tried our best to explain some of what was happening. He wasn’t really having it.
“You’re just trying to get me to lose,” he said. “If I tap out then you can give it to someone who you like more.”
He wouldn’t watch the footage. He outright refused, and was getting angrier by the minute. The tone in his voice changed. “Fuck you if you think you can make us go. Come back with this bullshit again and you’ll see what we can do.” We left him for the night.
After reviewing the footage of the interview and hearing more of the voices pleading for help, some with impenetrable screams, some of the crew left the production camp, refusing to work any further. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but we felt like we were in danger. We also felt like he was in danger, but we didn’t know how to deal with that, either. At the request of the remaining crew, we flew in a local pastor, but even he didn’t last through one viewing of the latest tape. He demanded to get out – now – especially after his Bible suddenly and mysteriously turned damp and black, so much so that it was as if an entire jug of ink had exploded in his backpack, but got on nothing else. We had to copter him back to civilization that same day.
We decided at that moment that we would reduce our checks on Dennett, and all checks would have at least 10 crew members present. For insurance purposes, we’d keep asking him for footage, but we knew he wouldn’t appear in the actual show, and we would figure out how to manufacture his exit later.
It never reached that moment. On our next visit, we showed up to an empty camp – no shelter, no fire, no remnants of food or someone having lived there at all – the only thing left being the camera gear strewn about the forest floor. A simple note hung from the tree that used to hold up his structure. “Going now. Watch and you will follow.”
The middle of his camp, where his campfire had been, was now nothing but a hole in the ground that was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom. We agreed we wouldn’t watch the video, and our camera operator melted the card using his lighter and then threw the card down the hole. As we walked back toward our boat, we heard a distant scream coming from his camp and the water around our boat turned black as ink. On that day we made a pact never to return.
Years later I heard a rumor that the cameraman had actually burned and threw an empty card down the hole, keeping the one Dennett left. When I went to ask him if the rumor was true, it turned out he had disappeared some months prior much the same way as Dennett had: he went out camping alone, never to be heard from again.
Part 3: Bloodless
If you’ve ever seen the History Channel’s TV show Alone, you’ll know that the animals our participants encounter are often some of the scariest things about the show. Sure, many starve themselves (willfully or not), hook themselves in the hand, cut their legs, and whatnot, but there’s nothing more dramatic than when the dark of night overcomes their camp and they hear a rustling and grumbling right outside of their shelter. But one of these moments you’ve never seen is the story of Timothy, who tried to fight back against his aggressor and lost. For the first time, this is his story made public.
Timothy wasn’t exactly our more impressive participant on the show. Many of the men tend to be burly prior-military or skinny-ish survivalist hippies. Timothy was just about right in the middle, not usually someone we’d put on the show. Vegetarian, never hunted, good with tools but not particularly impressive, could start a fire with some help from his ferro stick, but what he had that many candidates lacked was authenticity. He just seemed like a downright good guy, albeit insecure. So we wanted to have him on to serve up something different to our audience.
In that way, he didn’t disappoint. He did things differently than most participants typically do. Most participants establish a shelter first. Timothy was hungry, so he found some field with a weird-ass flower and started chowing down for a couple of hours. “Can’t build on an empty stomach,” he said, as if he hadn’t eaten right before being dropped off at his location. He then essentially built himself a mini-pool of sorts, it being pretty warm in Patagonia at that time of the year. He claimed he wanted a good place to “hang out” where he could be certain no “fishes were going to bite his toes,” where glacial fjords might not afford such confidence. It was certainly unique, if nothing else.
He did eventually build a shelter, though. And it was surprisingly nice. He did a fair job at choosing the right wood, stringing it all together, using a little paracord tie everything tightly, and some foliage nicely compacted down to create an as-comfortable-as-it-can-get bed. Everything seemed to be going quite well at first.
But sometime around day 3, things started to get a bit weird for Timothy. He had been lying down in his shelter, just talking to the camera about whatever-and-whatnot when there was a rustling just on the other side of the wall. It clearly startled him; he jumped up and did the usual “HEY!” toward the sound, and then silence, listening to see if it was still around. “GET OUT!” he yelled out, and you could hear whatever-it-was scramble away.
This isn’t uncommon. After all, we’re the strangers temporarily invading some other animal’s territory, so it can take a couple weeks or so for both to get used to the idea of being in a new place or having someone else take up residence. Usually it goes pretty smoothly, though we’ll often see a competitor or two get too scared and drop out during this time.
Wildlife in Patagonia is different, though. Sure, we had giant black bears in Vancouver Island, but there’s something a little different like Patagonia’s puma, otherwise known as a cougar. You might not be too familiar with cougars, but are more familiar with other terms for them: mountain lion and panther. These aren’t small cats the size of a Puma shoe or so. These are 7’ long, 200 lb predators. They’re not something you want to be staring down at, especially not in the night when they can see and you can’t. That’s one reason Timothy was rightfully pretty skittish. To his credit, though, he didn’t tap out like two others did.
But there are times when it can be too much. The push themselves too far. Suppress the fear that keeps you alive. Timothy realized this, I assume, but maybe it was too late. The competition made him ignore the warning signs. Rustling in and of itself isn’t a warning sign. That’s just the animals scoping out what’s going on. We’ve been over that. A warning sign is like that of finding a young, dead goat, drained of blood, sitting at your shelter’s door, its eyes wide open in fear toward the opening. Except no sound had been made all through the prior night, and nothing was caught on the outside bringing it up and setting it there.
When Timothy woke up to this sight, he was visibly shaken on camera. I would be, too. Sure, my house cats bring me gifts, but this didn’t have the same tone. Anthropomorphizing aside, this seemed to send some message. It was something far closer to “get off my lawn” than “here’s some food, dad.” He didn’t seem to get that, though. Maybe it’s hindsight that makes it obvious. But for Timothy it was a scary situation, still pretty early in the competition, that was really nothing more than an animal leaving it there by chance, but the way the goat was killed was horrific in and of itself.
Timothy seemed to get the message eventually, though. Every few days thereafter, there would be something new. A large pile of scat. The lifeless body of a bloodless baby boar. Once it was a pile of small teeth. Something weird was going on at his camp.
Except Timothy, instead of tapping out like most might’ve, decided to get to the bottom of it. The cameras, no matter how many he put out or where he put them, never really caught anything interesting outside of a flash of a tail, something around fur or quails, on the very edge of one camera view.
Instead, on the night of day 86, Timothy decided to wait up for it, machete in hand.
According to footage, at around 1:40 AM a sudden scream came from just outside of camp, accompanied by violent rustling in the direction of some heavy brush. Timothy sprang up from where he was sitting in his shelter and grabbed his flashlight in his other hand and rushed toward the entrance, leaving his emergency satellite phone behind.
On one outside camera view, you could see Timothy round the front of the shelter, ready to light up the mysterious animal. As he ran just out of view of that camera, a second outside camera picked him up, still running toward the brush, accidentally running into a thick branch from a nearby tree, knocking the flashlight from his hands, dropping to the ground and illuminating the camera’s view far too bright to see anything.
What we heard next on the camera can’t be adequately described, nor would I want to, as I’ll have to live with those desperate screams, yells, and cries for the rest of my life. From what I could tell, it was over quickly, lasting about a minute between the sounds of Timothy and those of continued violent rustling.
When we arrived at his camp on day 87, we found his body on the edge of camp, completely drained of blood and his organs missing, the only superficial wounds being some superficial claw marks and three holes in his abdomen. After finding him dead, we quickly had another crew fly over to the only other competitor still in the running and evacuated him, and later faked his crowning after a couple of weeks back in the United States, after we knew everyone was safe. That’s why, in the show, the winner was crowned the day after the last competitor was medically tapped. He wasn’t really the runner up. That was Timothy.
Timothy was a good guy with a great heart, but sometimes things get to us, whether it’s curiosity or ego or something else. For him, for the first time in his life, he was ready to face his fears, but he chose the wrong battle.
We still don’t know what exactly attacked Timothy. We assume it was a puma. Some locals claimed it was the Chupacabra, a mythical creature they had warned us about that ruled the woods and would come out at night to attack livestock. We’ll never know, though, as we’ll never go back to Patagonia again.
Part 4: Why We Won’t Tape a Kids’ Version Ever Again
After picking up all of the children for the kids’ version of our TV show Alone, I knew Adam was a little different than the others. As one of the producers, it was my job to validate our casting department’s choice of participants, and kids are always hard to read from their Skype interviews. But when Adam showed up acting cool and calm, which was very different than his Skype interview — and from how most of the other kids acted upon meeting them at the airport – I thought that was strange. That would be just the first of many strange moments with Adam.
Taping kids’ versions of adult shows is somewhere between really fun and really terrifying. Alone, being a show about survival, where we’ve had contestants get hurt, starve themselves, and, as you’ve read before, disappear, this fell somewhere far closer, if not over, the line of really terrifying to tape. After all, we’re taking responsibility for 12 kids’ well-beings. To alleviate some of our concerns, and especially the concerns of over-protective parents, we put into place special safeguards: we set up more cameras, we help set them up and did all the tape and battery exchanges ourselves, a flashlight and pot were part of the equipment we gave all the kids, and we would do three-times-per-week check-ins instead of the weekly check-ins we instituted after the whole Will situation.
But that isn’t to say it’s all bad, taping a kids version. There are certain benefits to it. First, it’s good ratings. They like kids. They do and say funny things. Even these kids, who were mostly pretty serious outdoors people already, hunting, foraging, and camping with their families. Plus they’re innocent. Except for Adam, apparently.
The Adam we met in the Skype interview was clearly nervous. Brown hair, blue eyes, freckles, small, skinny, a little on the runt side, which wasn’t surprising as he was the youngest of six kids. Not just came from a big family, but a family big in prepping, though didn’t seem to be into it as much as his dad was. Sure, he had hunted, camped, been on adventure excursions (which I gather were more like militia training sessions), but he didn’t really seem to be all about it. But his dad signed him up for the casting call and arranged for the Skype session, and we thought his combined innocence and knowledge of survival tactics would play well to viewers.
The Adam I picked up, though, was different. Cool, calm, and collected, as the saying goes. The nervousness was gone; not exuding any sense of innocence. It was like he was prepared, he’d been here before, was confident he’d win, and I couldn’t so much as get a small laugh out of him to my terrible dad jokes. He just sat there in the passenger seat looking out the window, taking note of where we were going.
The kids never met each other before the competition, and part of that was because of Adam. Unlike the other kids, all of whom flew into Vancouver proper, I picked him up at the local airport on Vancouver Island. So we never got the entire cast together before taping, which for a kids show would have been nice to get that b-roll/intro footage. He actually came in on the same day that we started taping, so half the kids were already in their spots when I picked him up, and we drove right over to the docks, where we met a film crew and headed straight to where we determined he would make camp.
One of the odder parts about Adam was that he brought less than half of the things he intended to bring. The kid participants, like the adults, get to bring 10 items with them, which they buy while at home, and we reimburse them for the cost. We get a list of these items before they come, so when Adam showed up with nothing more than a hatchet, that seemed odd. But he insisted that’s all he needed, and he didn’t even want the flashlight and pot we gave all the kids, though we left them on shore for him along with the rest of his items when we dropped him off. But the fact that he didn’t bring a sleeping bag, tent, saw, fish hooks and line, or anything else you’d normally see was odd.
As I said, though, we would check in on the kids three times per week, generally each Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, weather permitting. And, of course, each kid received a satellite phone for if they needed help or were ready to tap out. We’d do the same for Adam, of course, and debated checking in on some every couple days since he brought so few items.
He proved us wrong, though. Right from the start, he created an impressive shelter, a nice, sustainable fire, and found a hearty bush with berries that would sustain him for a few days or weeks until he found other food sources. Adam thrived where we thought he’d fail.
Some other kids thrived just as well as Adam did, but then strange things started happening to them. One mysteriously lost his bow and arrows, another had a tent blown away, I guess. People lose things out in the wilderness, though; especially when they accidentally drop a black ferro rod or inadvertently drop it into the fire.
But then we got other strange reports from the kids. Some reported seeing another child far off in the woods, crawling around outside of camp or even looking at them, or, at least in one case, when the kid came back his camp, he heard some rustling at the edge of camp and the thing ran off quickly. But by the time the kid would go and investigate, the strange child or thing would be gone.
We checked each kids’ tapes and didn’t see anything nefarious from any participants. None of the cheating we sometimes see or wandering off too far was happening. Even if the kids’ camps were closer than the adults’ camps usually were, we’re still talking about miles of dense forests, creeks, rivers, and mighty hills between them. So we were fairly certain it wasn’t a kid.
One day, though, Adam came back from a hunt wearing a coonskin cap. He didn’t take that with him. He told us he found it far off in the hills. There’s a lot of hunting out there, so that wasn’t particularly strange. Plus, participants are told they can use anything they find. But what was strange was he came back from the same hunt with something, some type of meat we couldn’t readily discern on camera. He had already butchered it and skinned it, so the most could figure was maybe it was a portion of moose thigh, a large feral hog, or something of that sort, though taking those down with nothing but a hatchet would be difficult. By the time we saw it on tape and came back to camp and asked questions, he had eaten it all and discarded the rest in the river, he told us.
After that, though, we started getting reports of even stranger things happening around some kids’ camps.
Emily was another participant who encountered weird things. While fishing, she spotted someone on the opposite shore watching her. She called out, and got nothing in return. When she looked away for a moment and then looked back, the person was gone. Later that evening she said the person came back: a small person with brown hair came ran into her camp, stole her hunting knife, and ran out. She took chase but got clothes-lined by fishing wire that had been set up between two trees outside her camp. She didn’t set it up.
William, a kid near to Adam’s camp, woke up being strangled by someone on top of him. He struggled and passed out, and when he awoke he found his camp on fire. He got out and couldn’t find his satellite phone, and had to flag down a fishing boat that was passing by, who got in touch with us. We wanted to check the tapes, of course, to figure out who did it and what happened, but the fire melted everything, and even caught about an acre of woods on fire. He chose to drop out of the competition even after we said we’d help him find a new camp.
The strangest thing to happen, though, was when some being appeared at several camps at the same time. Three different kids, spaced out about 8 miles from each other, reported seeing the same thing at the same time: a small person with brown hair peering in their direction from outside of camp, and immediately afterward, a fire came from that direction and spread into camp, forcing them out, at which time the small being chased after them for miles, while they could hear the zooms of arrows fly past them. It was bizarre.
It was at that time we decided to go ahead and end the competition and taping. Something weird was going on and we couldn’t explain it, and we were legitimately worried about some type of predator, human or otherwise, stalking the children.
When we got to Adam’s camp, he was gone. We waited around for him to come back while the other kids were picked up by other crew members. Very late that night, Adam finally returned and we told him we had ended the competition and would be sending everyone back home, which Adam didn’t react to. We took everyone back to a hotel to rest for the night, let their parents know that we ended the taping, and arrange for tickets. After I dropped Adam off at his hotel room, I called his parents to let them know he would be returning the next day.
“What do you mean Adam will be returning tomorrow?” his dad said on the phone.
“Yeah, we had to end the competition early since we were concerned for the kids’ well being with incoming bad weather,” I told him, brushing off the real concern.
“I don’t understand,” his dad replied. “Adam has been here at home the entire time.”
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