He squeezed through, stepped out into another intersection of hallways.
Voices murmured, not far away.
The noise of a stretcher rolling along on a squeaky wheel.
He went the opposite way, tracking through three long corridors, and had begun to suspect he was lost when he spotted an EXIT sign.
He hurried down a half flight of stairs, punched through the door at the bottom, and stumbled outside.
It was early evening, the sky clear and fading, and the mountains taking on the after light of the sun in tones of pink and orange. He stood on a short walkway extending out from the hospital—a four-story, redbrick building that reminded him more of a school, or a mental asylum.
He took as deep a shot of oxygen as he could without bringing the pain, and it felt amazing to inhale this cool, pine-scented air after breathing the hospital’s antiseptic stench.
He reached the sidewalk and started down Main Street toward the buildings of downtown.
There were more people out than in the afternoon.
He passed a restaurant situated in a small house with a patio off to the side. People dined outside under aspen trees strung with tiny white lights.
The smell of the food made his stomach growl.
At the corner of Main and Fifth, he crossed the street and returned to the phone booth where he’d lost consciousness two days before.
Stepping inside, he thumbed through the directory until he found the street address of the Wayward Pines Sheriff’s Office.
* * *
He felt better than he had in days walking toward the east side of town as the light began to fail and the temperature dropped.
He strolled past a barbecue in progress.
The smell of charcoal on the breeze.
The good, sour aroma of beer wafting out of plastic cups.
The sound of children’s laughter echoing through the valley.
The cicada-like clicking of a water sprinkler nearby.
Everywhere he looked, it was a painting.
Like the Platonic ideal of a town. There couldn’t have been more than four or five hundred people living here, and he found himself wondering what had brought them. How many had discovered Wayward Pines by accident, fell in love, stayed? How many had been born here and never left?
Much as he’d always been a big-city guy, he could understand not leaving a place like this. Why abandon what appeared to be complete and total perfection? Quintessential Americana surrounded by some of the most striking natural beauty he’d ever laid eyes on. He’d seen pictures of Wayward Pines the night before he left Seattle, but none of them had even come close to doing this little valley justice.
And still, he was here.
And by virtue of that fact, or rather because of it, this place wasn’t perfect.
His experience, there was darkness everywhere human beings gathered.
The way of the world.
Perfection was a surface thing. The epidermis. Cut a few layers deep, you begin to see some darker shades.
Cut to the bone—pitch black.
He couldn’t take his eyes off the mountains as he walked. The eastern wall must have gone up three or four thousand feet. Toward the top, all rock and ice.
The final strands of horizontal sunlight were striking the cliffs at his back, and he turned around and took a moment to stop and watch the glow fade away.
When the light was gone, the rock turned instantly to the color of blued steel.
And the nature of it changed.
It was still beautiful.
But more remote.
* * *
The placard above the glass double doors:
OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF OF WAYWARD PINES
Moving toward the front entrance down a walkway lined with baby pines, he felt a new impulse of frustration course through him.
Through the glass, he could see that the lobby was dark and empty.
Still, he grabbed the doors and gave them a rough tug.
It was after hours, sure, but Goddammit.
Ethan backed away from the entrance, glanced down the length of the single-story building. On the far end, it looked like a bit of light was slipping through the blinds behind a window.
He moved forward again, rapped his knuckles against one of the glass doors.
He banged with even more force, pounding the glass so hard the doors rattled in their frames.
Five minutes passed, but no one ever came.
* * *
Two stars and a planet had appeared by the time he reached Main Street, and the chill that had been pleasant fifteen minutes ago had become uncomfortable, cutting through his thin oxford shirt, his sockless feet beginning to tingle with numbness.
Worse, the first sign of real hunger was manifesting itself as a hollow ache in the pit of his stomach and a dizziness behind his eyes.
He walked several blocks down to the Wayward Pines Hotel and climbed the stone steps to the entrance.
Through the panes of glass in the door, he saw lights on inside, and a young woman sitting behind the front desk.
Ethan entered the lobby into a welcome blast of warmth.
A grand piano occupied a corner across from the massive hearth, which presently housed a roaring fire.
He stopped for a moment and held his hands out to the heat. The boiling pine resin gave off the sweet smell of a candle. He could’ve stretched out on the couch and napped for days.
After a moment, he dragged himself away and walked over to the front desk.
The woman smiled at Ethan as he approached.
She struck him as midtwenties. Cute, though a little on the heavy side, her black hair pulled into a short ponytail. She wore a white dress shirt under a black vest, and her name tag identified her as LISA.
Ethan sidled up to the desk and rested his forearms on the high counter to steady his balance.
“Good evening,” Lisa said. “Welcome to the Wayward Pines Hotel. How may I help you tonight?”
Her greeting seemed off. Not the words, but the delivery. Like she was struggling through something she rarely had to say.
“Do you have any vacancies tonight?”
“We sure do.”
Lisa typed on a keyboard.
“Just tonight?” she asked.
“Yes. For now at least.”
Ethan glanced at the computer monitor—an ancient monstrosity. Like something from the late eighties. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such a dinosaur.
“I have a nonsmoking, nonpet room on the second floor with a king bed.”
“That’ll be fine.”
She finished typing. “And would you like to put this on a credit card?”
Ethan smiled. “That’s an interesting question.”
“Really? How so?”
“I was involved in a car accident several days ago. A truck slammed into the side of my car. Just up the block from here actually. Maybe you saw it?”