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.
There was the smell of the dried pine needles baking in the sun.
The sweet cold water.
The bright sound of the river tumbling down through the canyon.
The clatter of stones shifting under the current.
The piercing blue of the sky.
To be warm again lifted his spirits, and to be in the wilderness, despite everything, spoke to something buried deep in the pit of his soul.
Last night, he’d been too tired to do anything but lie motionless on the stone.
Now, his hunger returned.
He fished the carrots and squashed bread loaf out of his pockets.
* * *
Back on his feet, he scavenged until he found a pine branch in the nearby grove and broke off one end so that its length suited him for a walking stick. Spent several minutes stretching, trying to work the debilitating soreness out of his muscles, but it was a losing battle.
He finally struck off up the canyon at a pace he thought he could maintain, but after ten minutes, the trauma of yesterday’s exertion forced him to slow down.
A half mile felt like five.
With every step, he was relying more and more on his walking stick for support, clinging to it like a lifeline, like his only decent leg.
* * *
By early afternoon, the nature of the canyon had begun to change, the river narrowing until it could only be called a stream, pines shrinking, growing fewer and farther between, and those he encountered were stunted and gnarled, dwarfed victims of punishing winters.
He was having to stop frequently, now resting more than he was walking, and constantly out of breath, his lungs burning with oxygen deprivation the higher he climbed.
* * *
Near dusk, he lay sprawled across a lichen-covered rock beside what was left of the river—a six-foot-wide, fast-moving current that babbled over a bed of colorful stones.
It had been four or five hours since he’d left the alcove, and already the sun was sliding behind the canyon wall on the other side of the stream.
When it disappeared, the temperature plummeted.
He lay there watching the color drain from the sky, curled up against the coming chill, and the grim realization setting in that he wasn’t going to be getting back up.
Turning over onto his side, he tugged the hood over his face.
Shut his eyes.
He was cold, but his clothes were dry, and he was trying to sort through a swarm of thoughts and competing emotions, the exhaustion pushing him toward the edge of delirium, and then suddenly he felt the sun beating down on his hood.
He opened his eyes, sat up.
He was still on that rock beside the stream, only now it was morning, the sun just peeking over the canyon wall at his back.
I slept all night.
He dragged himself over to the stream and drank, the water so cold it made his head ache.
He had a carrot and a few bites of bread, and then struggled onto his feet and took a leak. He felt surprisingly better, the pain in his legs less all-consuming. Almost manageable.
He grabbed his walking stick.
* * *
The canyon walls closed in and the stream dwindled into a trickle before finally disappearing altogether into the spring from which it sourced.
In the absence of running water, the silence was blaring.
Nothing but the clink of rocks under his boots.
The lonely croak of a bird passing overhead.
His own panting.
The walls on either side of him were becoming steeper, and there were no more trees or even shrubs.
Just shattered rock and lichen and sky.
* * *
By midday, Ethan had abandoned his walking stick, reduced now to moving on all fours over the steepest terrain yet. As he worked his way around a bend in the canyon, a new sound crept in over the constant noise of shifting rocks. He leaned against a boulder the size of a compact car, trying to hone in on the noise over his own ragged breathing.
There it was.