—The scent of Masgouf roasting nearby.
—Somewhere in the bowels of this compound, a man screaming.
No one knows I’m here. At least no one who can help me.
His thoughts veer toward Theresa—pregnant back home—but the onslaught of emotion and homesickness is more than he can bear in light of what lies ahead. The temptation to replay their last conversation—a VoIP call at the MWR—is powerful, but it would break him.
Cannot go there. Not yet. In my final moments maybe.
Ethan lifts the pen.
Just need something to occupy my mind. Cannot sit here and dwell on what’s coming.
Because that’s what he wants.
That’s all this is about.
* * *
Shot out of dreams of the war.
For a full minute, he had no idea where he was, simultaneously shivering and burning with fever.
Ethan sat up, reaching out in the darkness around him, and as his fingers grazed the rocky walls of the alcove, his internal GPS updated and the horror that had become his life came rushing back.
He’d thrown his clothes off in his sleep, and they lay scattered on the stone beside him, cold and damp. He spread them out so they’d have a better chance at drying, and then scooted forward until he perched on the edge of the alcove.
The rain had stopped.
The night sky hemorrhaging starlight.
He’d never had the slightest interest in astronomy, but he found himself searching for familiar constellations, wondering if the stars he saw shone from their proper stations.
Is this the night sky I’ve always seen?
Fifty feet below him, the river sang.
He stared downslope toward the water, and when he saw it, his blood froze.
Ethan’s first inclination was to scramble back into the recess, but he fought against the urge, fearing any sudden movement would draw attention.
Son of a bitch, they followed me.
Crossed the river after all.
They were down in those giant pines by the river and so well hidden in shadow that he couldn’t gauge their number.
At a sloth’s pace, inch by inch, Ethan withdrew into the recess, lowering himself until his chest was flattened against the freezing rock, now just peeking out over the lip of the alcove.
They vanished into shadow, and for a moment, aside from the river, the world stood absolutely still, Ethan beginning to wonder if he’d actually seen anything at all. Considering what he’d been through in the last five days, rote hallucinations would’ve been a welcome return to sanity.
Thirty seconds later, they emerged out of the shadow of the pines, onto the crushed rock at the base of the slope.
What the hell?
There was only one, and though it was the size of a man, it didn’t move like a man—traveling across the rock on all fours, hairless and pale under the stars.
A metal taste—byproduct of fear—coated Ethan’s mouth as it struck him that its proportions were all wrong, arms seemingly twice their normal length.
The thing raised its head, and even from this distance, Ethan could see its oversized nose pointed toward the sky.
Ethan wriggled himself away from the opening and as far back into the alcove as he could get, where he huddled with his arms around his legs, shivering and straining to listen for the sound of approaching footsteps or shifting rocks.
But all he could hear was the purr of the river, and the next time he chanced a look outside, whatever he’d seen—or thought he’d seen—was gone.
* * *
In the few hours of darkness remaining, sleep eluded him.
He was too cold.
In too much pain.
Too terrorized by everything he’d experienced to venture back into dreams.
He lay on the rock, overwhelmed with one desire. One need.
Back home, he’d often wake in the middle of the night to feel her arm thrown over him, her body contoured to his. Even on the hardest nights. Nights he’d come home late. Nights they fought. Nights he’d betrayed her. She brought so much more to the table than he ever had. She loved at light-speed. No hesitation. No regrets. No conditions. No reservations. While he hoarded his chips and held a part of himself back, she went all in. Every time.
There were moments when you saw the people you loved for who they really were, separate from the baggage of projection and shared histories. When you saw them with fresh eyes, as a stranger might, and caught the feeling of the first time you loved them. Before the tears and the armor chinks. When there was still the possibility of perfection.
He had never had a clearer picture of his wife, had never loved her more—not even in the beginning—than in this moment, in this cold, dark place, as he imagined her holding him.
* * *
He watched the stars go dark as the sun breathed fire into the sky, and when it finally cleared the ridge on the far side of the river, he bathed in the rays of gorgeous warmth streaming into his alcove and toasting the frozen stone.
In the new light, he could finally see the damage he’d sustained fleeing Wayward Pines.
Bruises, bull’s-eyed with blackish-yellow hematomas, covered his arms and legs.
Puncture wounds from Nurse Pam’s needle stabs specked his left shoulder and right side.
He unwound the duct tape from his left leg, uncovering the place along the back of his thigh where Beverly had dug out the microchip. The pressure of the wrap had effectively stopped the bleeding, but the skin around the incision was inflamed. It would need antibiotics and a good stitch job to stave off infection.
He ran his hands along his face, thinking how it didn’t feel like anything that belonged to him. The skin was swollen, split in places, and his nose, broken twice in the last twenty-four hours, felt excruciatingly tender. His cheeks were rippled with shallow cuts from branches whipping his face as he’d sprinted through the forest, and a lump had risen on the back of his head, courtesy of one of those rock-wielding children.
Nothing, however, rivaled the blinding ache of his leg muscles, which he’d pushed far beyond their breaking point.
He wondered if he even had the strength to walk.
* * *
By midmorning, with his clothes sufficiently dry, Ethan dressed, laced up his still-damp boots, and lowered himself over the alcove’s ledge, down to the base of the cliff.
The descent to the river gave him a brutal taste of what the rest of the day held in store, and by the time he reached the bank, his muscles screamed.
No choice but to rest, closing his eyes and letting the sunlight pour onto his face like warm water. At this elevation, it was wonderfully concentrated.