“I don’t know. But I can’t take people looking at me. We can’t talk about him, of course, but I’d see the pity in their eyes. Or worse, they’d ignore me. Act like nothing happened. Like he never existed. I haven’t even told my son that his father’s dead. I don’t know how to begin.”

It would be evening soon.

The sky was free of clouds.

The row of aspen saplings that separated her backyard from her neighbor’s had turned to gold overnight, the coin-shaped leaves twittering in the breeze. She could hear the wooden wind chimes clanging on the back porch beside the door. It was moments like this—the visual perfection underscored with a reality she could never know—that she feared would one day drive her to insanity.

“You’ve done well here,” Pilcher said. “The difficulties with Ethan were the last thing I ever wanted. I hope you believe that.”

She looked at Pilcher, stared straight into his black eyes.

“I don’t know what I believe,” she said.

“Your son’s inside?”

“Yes, why?”

“I want you to go in and get him. I have a car parked out front.”

“Where are you taking us?”

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He shook his head.

“Are you going to hurt Benjamin?”

Pilcher struggled onto his feet.

He stared down at her.

“If I wanted to hurt you, Theresa, I would take you and your son in the middle of the night, and no one would ever hear from you again. But you already know this. Now go get him. I’ll meet you out front in two minutes.”

CHAPTER 15

Ethan stared into the air duct.

The fit was going to be tight, maybe impossible with the hoodie.

He pulled out of the sleeves and tugged it off and tossed it over the ledge, gooseflesh rising on his bare arms. Figured his feet would be responsible for most of the propulsion and decided to come out of his socks as well so he wouldn’t slide.

He got his head through the opening.

At first, his shoulders wouldn’t fit, but after a minute of wriggling, he finally maneuvered himself halfway inside, arms splayed out ahead, feet struggling to push him the rest of the way, the thin metal freezing against his toes.

When he was completely inside the air duct, a wave of panic swept over him. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, his shoulders squeezed between the two walls, and the realization dawning on him that moving backward was now impossible. At least not without popping both shoulders out of socket.

His only method of movement was the paltry momentum his toes could stir up, and they had no reverse gears.

He inched forward, literally, sliding along the surface of the duct.

Still bleeding.

Muscles in revolt in the wake of the climb and his nerves frayed.

In the distance—nothing but absolute darkness, the tunnel reverberating with the echo of his shuffling.

Except for when he stopped.

Then a perfect silence set in, interrupted only by random bangs that gave his heart a start—the expanding and contracting of the metal in response to temperature fluctuations.

Five minutes in, Ethan tried to glance back toward the opening, something in him craving just one last glimpse of light—that smallest consolation—but he couldn’t crane his neck far enough back to see.

* * *

He crawled and crawled and crawled.

Closed in on all sides in complete darkness.

At some point, maybe thirty minutes in, maybe five hours, maybe a day...he had to stop.

His toes cramped from the strain.

He slumped across the metal.

Shivering.

Insanely thirsty.

Maddeningly hungry and unable to reach the food in his pocket.

He could hear his heart heaving in his chest against the metal and nothing else.

* * *

He slept.

Or lost consciousness.

Or died for a minute.

When he woke again, he thrashed violently against the sides of the duct, no idea where he was or even when he was, his eyes open to sheer darkness.

For a terrifying moment, he thought he’d been buried alive, the sound of his own hyperventilation like someone screaming in his ear.

* * *

Crawled for what seemed like days.

His eyes conjuring strange displays of light that appeared with greater frequency the longer he stayed in darkness.

Vivid bursts of color.

Imaginary auroras.

Haunting radiance in the black.

And the longer he crawled in that confined darkness, the more aggressively one thought kept eating at him—none of this is real.

Not Wayward Pines, or the canyon, or those creatures, or even you.

So what is this? Where am I?

In a long, dark tunnel. But where do you think you’re going?

I don’t know.

Who are you?

Ethan Burke.

No, who are you?

The father of Ben. Husband of Theresa. I live in a neighborhood in Seattle called Queen Anne. I was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the second Gulf War. After that, a Secret Service agent. Seven days ago, I came to Wayward Pines—

Those are just facts. They say nothing about your identity, your nature.

I love my wife, but I was unfaithful to her.

That’s good.

I love my son, but I was rarely around. Just a distant star in his sky.

Even better.

I have good intentions, but...

But what?

But all the time I fail. I hurt the ones I love.

Why?

I don’t know.

Are you losing your mind?

I sometimes think I’m still in that torture room. I never left.

Are you losing your mind?

You tell me.

I can’t.

Why?

Because I am you.

* * *

At first, he thought it was just another phantom light show, but there were no erratic blooms of color. No optic fireworks.

Just a sustained speck of blue somewhere far ahead, as faint as a dying star.

When he closed his eyes, it disappeared.

When he opened them, it came back again, like the only vestige of sanity left in his claustrophobic world. It was just a point of light, but he could make it vanish and reappear, and even this scintilla of control was something to cling to.

An anchor. A port of call.

Ethan thinking, Please. Be real.

* * *

The dim blue star grew larger, and with its expansion came a quiet hum.

Ethan stopped to rest, a soft vibration now moving through the ductwork, moving through him.

After hours in the dark, this new sensation felt as comforting as a mother’s heartbeat.

* * *

Sometime later, the blue star changed shape into a tiny square.

It grew until it dominated Ethan’s field of vision, anticipation roiling in his gut.

Then it was ten feet ahead of him.