“No, it’s because I love you. So very much.”
“Are you coming back?”
“I’m going to try my best.”
“What if you don’t?”
“He’s coming back, Ben,” Theresa said.
“No, let’s be straight with him. It’s very dangerous what I have to do, son. It’s possible I won’t make it. If something happens to me, you take care of your mother.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Ben started to cry again.
“Ben, look at me.”
“If something happens to me, you take care of your mother. You’ll be the man of the house.”
As Ethan kissed the top of the boy’s head, he looked over at Theresa.
She was so strong.
“You’ll come back,” she said, “and when you do, you’ll make everything about this town better.”
The nomad had planned to spend one last night in the wild, but the moment Hassler zipped into his bivy sack at the top of the pine tree, the realization hit: sleep would never find him.
He’d been out in the wild beyond the fence for 1,308 days. He couldn’t be certain, but by his estimate, Wayward Pines was just a few miles to the north, and now that the swarm of abbies had moved out of his path, he was in the clear to go home.
Every harrowing day of his expedition, at some point, his mind had wandered to this moment. Wondering, Would he ever see it again? What would it feel like to walk back into town? Into safety and all the things he loved?
There had been only eight nomads sent out beyond the fence in the history of Wayward Pines. Among Pilcher’s inner circle, it was seen as the ultimate honor and sacrifice. To Hassler’s knowledge, no nomad had ever returned from a long-term mission. Unless one of them had come back while he was away, Hassler would be the first.
He went slowly, methodically, packing his Kelty external frame backpack for the last time—the empty one-liter water bottles, his flint and steel, an empty first-aid kit, the last few scraps of moldy buffalo jerky.
Out of habit, he sealed his leather-bound journal in its plastic bag. Everything he’d experienced and encountered in his three and a half years in the wild was contained in those pages. Days of sadness. Joy. Days he was sure would be his last. All that he’d discovered. Everything seen.
His heart racing as an abby swarm, fifty thousand strong, had sprinted across what had once been called the Bonneville Salt Flats on the Great Salt Lake.
Tears running down his face as he’d watched a life-altering sunset turn the skeletal ruins of the Portland skyline from rust to bronze.
Standing on the ruins of Fort Point and staring across the bay at all that was left of the Golden Gate Bridge—the top hundred feet of the south tower poking out of the water like the mast of a sunken ship.
All those nights he’d spent wet and cold.
Hungry and lonely.
The gray mornings he hadn’t had the will to rise out of his sleeping bag and walk on.
The nights he’d sat contentedly before a fire, smoking his pipe.
What a strange, amazing life.
And now, after all of that, he was going home.
Hassler cinched down his pack and clipped in the straps and hoisted it onto his shoulders. He’d pushed himself harder than usual these last few days, and he could feel the strain in his legs and his hips, a slowly building ache that would take several days of rest to relieve. But what did it matter now? Soon, he’d be clean and in a warm, soft bed with a full stomach. No harm in toughing it out on the homestretch.
He followed the path of a stream until it branched west.
The white noise of the water dwindled away.
The woods became dark and silent.
Every step held meaning, and each one more than the last.
A few minutes shy of dawn, he stopped.
Straight ahead stood the fence.
Something was wrong. It should’ve been humming with its lethal voltage, but it didn’t make a sound.
A single thought screamed through his mind—Theresa.
Hassler started running for the gate.
Ted’s residence on Level 4 was twice the size of the others, a perk of being one of the first to join David Pilcher’s inner circle. For fourteen years he’d lived in this tiny space, and it exuded the messy comfort of home, with everything (sort of) in its place.
Life in the superstructure shook out in a strange rhythm of work and leisure, and it generally took people years to find the balance. Regardless of department, work shifts were onerous. Ten-hour days, six days a week. And still, things just barely got done For Ted, as head of surveillance, there wasn’t a week in recent memory when he had worked fewer than seventy hours. The challenge had come with finding what to do, beyond sleeping, with the other seventy hours of free time in the week. He wasn’t an extrovert, and even though they existed for him only on surveillance monitors, Ted felt he spent every working second with the residents of Wayward Pines. So in his time off, he wanted nothing more than to be alone.
He’d tried painting.
A bad spell of knitting.
Until one day, eight years ago, he’d found an antique typewriter in the ark, an Underwood Touchmaster Five. He’d carried it back to his residence, along with several boxes of paper, and set up a little writer’s desk in the corner of his room.
All his life, he’d felt like he harbored within him the Great American Novel.
But now that there was no America, no anything really, what would he write?
Was there even a point to the creation of books and art when humanity lived on the precipice of extinction?
He didn’t know, but as he began to punch the old keys, worn so smooth the letters were barely visible, he knew he liked writing and that he loved the feel of the Underwood under his fingers.
There was no screen.
Just the lovely, tactile click-click-click of the keys, the faint smell of ink as the paper scrolled slowly out, and him alone with his thoughts.
At first, he’d toyed with a detective novel.
That had petered out.
Then his own life story, which he quickly tired of recounting.
A couple weeks in, it hit him. All day long, he stared at surveillance monitors broadcasting hundreds of private lives in all stages of desperation. He would make the residents of Wayward Pines his subjects. Chronicle their lives before, their integrations into the town, imagine their interior thoughts and fears.