Ethan roared, approaching the boy with his right arm cocked back, and he would’ve hit him but the kid backpedaled, tripped, fell, and then ran off into the woods the moment he regained his feet, shouting in full voice that they’d found him.
Half the children, upon seeing their leader turn tail and flee, followed suit.
Those who didn’t, Ethan charged, feeling a bit like an elk trying to scatter a pack of predatory coyotes, but eventually he chased off all but one, the children screaming as they vanished into the pines as if the devil was after them.
The boy who stayed behind watched Ethan through the rain.
He might have been the youngest of the bunch—seven, eight at most.
He’d dressed up like a cowboy—red-and-white hat, boots, string tie, and a Western-style button-down.
He held a flashlight and a rock and stood there with no expression at all.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” Ethan asked.
The boy shook his head, water dripping off the brim of his hat. He looked up at Ethan, and as the flashlight beam illuminated the freckles on his face, Ethan could see that he’d lied. He was afraid, his bottom lip trembling uncontrollably. It was the bravest face the boy could muster, and Ethan couldn’t help but admire him, wondering what had prompted him to make this stand.
“You should quit running, Mr. Burke.”
“How do you know my name?”
“You could have a beautiful life here, and you don’t even see it.”
“What is this place?”
“Just a town,” the boy said.
Adult voices rang out, a new squadron of flashlights twinkling in the pines like emerging stars.
“Where’s your home?” Ethan asked.
The boy tilted his head, puzzled at the question.
“What do you mean?”
“Where’d you live before Wayward Pines?”
“I’ve always lived here.”
“You’ve never left this town?” Ethan asked.
“You can’t leave,” the boy said.
“You just can’t.”
“I don’t accept that.”
“That’s why you’re going to die.” The boy suddenly screamed, “He’s over here! Hurry!”
Lights broke out of the pines into the meadow.
Ethan ran, crashing into the forest on the other side, not even bothering to shield his face or glance back at his pursuers, thrashing through the darkness, losing all sense of time and direction, struggling to keep his head against the chord of absolute panic that threatened to drop him to his knees, curl him up in the fetal position, and finally break his mind.
Because of the fear.
Because of the pain.
Because none of this made a goddamned inkling of sense.
It wasn’t the sound of the river that stopped him but the smell.
A sudden sweetness in the air.
The terrain dropped away and he scrambled down a muddy bank into frigid, raging water, the river pouring into his boots like liquid steel.
Despite the freezing shock of it, he refused to falter, just kept staggering in, away from the bank, deeper and deeper into the current.
The water reached his waist, Ethan gasping as it chilled him to the core, the current fierce, desperate to drag him downstream.
He took slow, careful steps, the stones on the bed shifting under his weight and tumbling slowly downriver.
Between each step, he braced himself, leaning into the force of the water.
Midway across, it rose to his chest.
The current swept him off his feet.
Driving Ethan downstream.
In the near darkness, he had no idea what boulders jutted out of the channel, just knew that slamming into one could kill him.
He struggled across the current using a hard, deliberate sidestroke.
His arms worked fine, but with his waterlogged boots he couldn’t kick with any efficiency or power.
Their weight pulled him under more than they propelled him.
After a frenzied minute, his muscles on the brink of mutiny, he felt the soles of his boots graze the bottom.
Standing, he leaned into the current, the water level dropping back to his waist.
A dozen more steps brought it down to his knees, and then he jogged the rest of the way out of the river, collapsing on the bank.
Rolled onto his side, breathless, spent, shivering.
He stared back across the channel.
Everywhere, new beams of light appeared.
He could hear people shouting, thought it was possible they were calling his name, but from this distance, the crushing noise of the whitewater destroyed any chance of hearing them distinctly.
Ethan wanted to move, knew he had to, but he couldn’t make himself scramble back onto his feet. Just needed another minute to lie there and breathe.
There were more lights on the opposite shore now than he could count, the highest concentration thirty yards upriver at his point of entry, but more and more, people seemed to be venturing north and south of where he’d gone in, light beams sweeping out over the current in a dozen places.
He rolled over onto his knees.
Hands shaking with cold like he’d been afflicted with palsy.
He began to crawl, fingers groping through wet sand.
Just that minute of lying motionless had stiffened his joints.
When he came to the next large rock, he reached up, got a handhold, and pulled himself onto his feet.
His boots sloshed with water.
There must have been a hundred people across the river, and still more lights appearing on the bank every second. Most beams reached only the midpoint, but a handful carried the potency to shoot all the way across to Ethan’s side, their compact tubes of light clearly visible with the rain falling through them.
Ethan scrambled away from the water, hoping to put more distance between himself and the lights, but after ten feet, he reached a sheer wall of rock.
He moved alongside it as the voices of several hundred people overpowered the crush of whitewater.
A light struck the cliff ten feet ahead.
Ethan ducked behind a boulder and peeked around the side as the beam traversed the cliff behind him.
A waterfall of light poured down from the shore into the current. From where Ethan crouched, he saw a few people wading knee-deep in the river, searching, but no one was attempting to swim across.
He’d started to step out from behind the boulder when a voice, amplified through a megaphone, blared across the river.
“Ethan, come back to us, and all will be forgiven.”
He’d have known it anywhere—the deep, guttural boom of Sheriff Pope’s voice, ricocheting off the cliffs, back into the pine forest behind the crowd.