Pines

Page 21

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She comes to him across the kitchen, and he wraps his arms around her, buries his nose in her hair. He does this often, trying as of late to recapture that first-encounter smell—some mix of perfume and conditioner and core essence that once made his heart trip over itself. But it’s either changed now, been lost, or become such an integral part of him that he can no longer detect the scent, which, when he could, always carried him back to those first days. More defining even than her short blonde hair and green eyes. A feeling of newness. A fresh turn. Like a sharp October afternoon and the sky blue and bright and the Cascades and Olympics holding fresh snow and the trees in the city just beginning to turn.

He embraces her.

The sting and the shame of all he’s put her through are still raw. He can’t say for certain, but he suspects that if she’d done the same to him, he’d already be gone. Marvels at her love for him. Her loyalty. So far beyond anything he deserves, it only intensifies the shame.

“I’m gonna go look in on him,” Ethan whispers.

“OK.”

“When I come back down, you’ll sit with me while I eat?”

“Of course.”

He drapes his coat over the banister, slips out of his black shoes, and pads up the stairs, skipping over the squeaky fifth step.

There are no bad floorboards the rest of the way, and soon he’s standing in the threshold of the bedroom, easing the door open until a splinter of light has carved through the space between the door and the jamb.

For Ben’s fifth birthday, they painted the walls to reflect space: Blackness. Stars. The swirl of distant galaxies. Planets. The occasional deep-space satellite or rocket. An astronaut drifting.

His son sleeps in a tangle of blankets, a small trophy clutched in his hands—a golden, plastic boy kicking a soccer ball.

Ethan moves quietly across the floor, dodging stray LEGO pieces and Hot Wheels.

Crouches down beside the bed.

His eyes have adjusted to the darkness just well enough to draw out the details of Benjamin’s face.

Softness.

Serenity.

They’re shut, but he has his mother’s almond eyes.

Ethan’s mouth.

There is a tactile ache, kneeling here in the dark by the bed of his soon-to-be-six-year-old son in the wake of another day he’s missed completely.

His boy is the most perfect and beautiful thing he’s ever laid eyes on, and he feels, acutely, the inexorable passing of a thousand moments with this little person who will be a man sooner than he can possibly imagine.

He touches Ben’s cheek with the back of his hand.

Leans forward, kisses the boy’s forehead.

Brushes a wisp of hair back behind his ear.

“I’m so proud of you,” he whispers. “You can’t even imagine.”

Last year, the morning of the day he died in a nursing home, wasted from age and pneumonia, his father asked Ethan in a raspy voice, “You spend time with your son?”

“Much as I can,” he’d answered, but his father had caught the lie in his eyes.

“It’ll be your loss, Ethan. Day’ll come, when he’s grown and it’s too late, that you’d give a kingdom to go back and spend a single hour with your son as a boy. To hold him. Read a book to him. Throw a ball with a person in whose eyes you can do no wrong. He doesn’t see your failings yet. He looks at you with pure love and it won’t last, so you revel in it while it’s here.”

Ethan thinks often of that conversation, mostly when he’s lying awake in bed at night and everyone else is asleep, and his life screaming past at the speed of light—the weight of bills and the future and his prior failings and all these moments he’s missing—all the lost joy—perched like a boulder on his chest.

“Can you hear me? Ethan?”

Sometimes he feels like he can’t breathe.

Sometimes his thoughts come so fast he has to find one perfect memory.

Cling to it.

A life raft.

“Ethan, I want you to grab hold of my voice and let it bring you to the surface of consciousness.”

Letting it play over and over until the anxiety recedes and the exhaustion comes and he can finally slip under.

“I know it’s hard, but you have to try.”

Into the only portion of his days that anymore affords him peace...

“Ethan.”

Dreams.

His eyes shot open.

A light bored down into his face—a small, focused point of bright and blinding blue.

A penlight.

He blinked, it disappeared, and when he opened his eyes again, a man peered down at him through gold wire-rimmed glasses, less than a foot away from his face.

Small, black eyes.

Head shaven.

A faint silver beard the only indication of age, his skin otherwise smooth and clear.

He smiled—small, perfect white teeth.

“You can hear me now, yes?”

There was formality in the man’s tone. Implied politeness.

Ethan nodded.

“Do you know where you are?”

Ethan had to think for a moment—he’d been dreaming of Seattle, of Theresa and Ben.

“Let’s start with something else. Do you know your name?” the man asked.

“Ethan Burke.”

“Very good. And again, do you know where you are, Ethan?”

He could feel the answer on the cusp of memory, but there was confusion too, several realities in competition.

In one, he was in Seattle.

In another, a hospital.

In another, an idyllic mountain town called...There was a hole where its name should be.

“Ethan.”

“Yes?”

“If I told you that you were in a hospital in Wayward Pines, would that jog anything loose?”

It didn’t just jog something loose—it brought everything back at once like a hard, sudden hit from a linebacker, the memory of his last four days jarred into working order, into a sequence of events he felt confident he could lean on.

“OK,” Ethan said. “OK. I do remember.”

“Everything?”

“I think so.”

“What’s your last recollection?”

It took a moment to retrieve, to brush the cobwebs off the synapses, but he found it.

“I had a terrible headache. I was sitting on the sidewalk of Main Street, and I...”

“You lost consciousness.”

“Exactly.”

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