Hassler stared into the flames. “I didn’t know he was here,” he said.
“Why would you?”
“No, I just . . . Does Ethan know?”
“No, I haven’t told him. I mean, I was going to eventually, but Ben and I talked about it, decided there was no rush. We didn’t think we’d ever see you again.”
Tears dropped out of the corners of Hassler’s eyes, carving clean trails through the grime embedded in his face.
Ben watched him from the mattress.
“It’s like a nightmare,” Hassler said.
“Coming home to this. Every day I was out beyond the fence, facing death and hunger and thirst, it was you, only you, that kept me going. The thought of how our life would be when I got back.”
“That year we lived together—”
“Was the happiest I’d ever been. I love you. I never stopped.” Hassler crawled around the bed of coals and put his arm around her. He looked at Ben. “I was a father to you, wasn’t I?” He looked at Theresa. “And I was your man. Your protector.”
“I wouldn’t have survived Wayward Pines without you, Adam, but I thought you were never coming back. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, my husband is here.”
Somewhere outside, an abby howled.
Hassler pulled his backpack over, opened it, dug around inside until he emerged with a leather-bound journal. Tearing off the plastic, he opened the weathered book to the first page. In the firelight, he pointed to the inscription: When you come back—and you will come back—I’m gonna f**k you, solider, like you just came home from war.
It broke her to see those words.
Knocked her flat.
She’d written them just before Hassler had left.
“I read it every day,” he said. “You have no idea the hard times it got me through.”
She couldn’t see anything now, the tears flowing, the emotion unfurling inside of her like a hemorrhage—too fast to staunch.
“I’m not asking you to predict the future,” he said. “I’m talking about right now. This moment. Do you still love me, Theresa?”
She looked up at the matted beard, the scarred face, his hollowed-out eyes.
God, but she did.
“I never stopped,” she whispered.
The relief in his eyes was like a stay of execution.
“I need to know something,” she said. “When we were living together, did you know?”
“Did I know what?”
“About this town. What it was. All the secrets that were kept.”
He stared into her eyes and said, “Until the day David Pilcher came to me and said I’d been chosen for a nomad mission beyond the fence, I only knew what you knew.”
“Why did he send you out there?”
“To explore. To search for signs of human life outside our valley.”
“Did you find any?”
“My last entry out there . . .” Hassler flipped to the end of his journal. “I wrote, ‘I alone have the key to what will save us all. I’m literally the one man in the world who can save the world.’”
“So what is it?” Theresa asked. “What’s the key?”
“To make our peace.”
“With the fact that this is truly the end. The world belongs to the abbies now.”
Even through her grief and shock, this statement registered.
Theresa felt suddenly, completely, alone.
“There isn’t going to be some discovery that saves us,” Hassler said. “That puts us back on the top of the food chain. This valley is the only place where we can survive. We’re going to become extinct. That’s simply a fact. Might as well do it with grace. Savor each day, each moment.”
Mustin brushed the snow off the rocks and settled down into his perch. Due to the sheer quantity of ammo he’d brought along this time, it had taken him an extra hour to reach the peak.
He’d scoped the town before, but of course he’d never had a target in the valley.
He zeroed out the scope on what was left of Sheriff Burke’s Bronco.
It took him three shots, followed by three minor adjustments to the parallax, before he put a round exactly where he wanted it—through the front tire on the driver side.
The town had been laid out in regular blocks, three hundred feet long on each side, which meant that further adjustments would be simple now that he had his point of reference.
He cracked his neck.
Grabbing the bolt, he opened the breach and jacked the first round out of the five-capacity magazine.
Settling in behind the focus, he enabled his headset as he glassed Main Street.
“Mustin here, in position. Over.”
Ethan Burke responded, “We’re at the tunnel door. Over.”
“Copy that. Beginning my first pass now. Stand by. Out.”
There were bodies scattered up and down Main.
Five abbies feeding in the middle of the street in front of the Steaming Bean.
For now, he ignored the forest and the cliffs surrounding the town and took his time studying the east-west-running avenues, the north-south-running streets.
He scribbled a notation on his pad after every sighting.
Eleven minutes later, he tapped the TALK button on his headset.
“Mustin back. Over.”
“Go ahead,” Ethan said.
“I’ve got a visual on a hundred and five aberrations. About half of them are moving in groups of between fifteen and twenty. The others are ranging solo through town. No sign of survivors yet.”
Ethan said, “You’ve got twenty minutes and then we’re rolling in. Over.”
Mustin smiled. A deadline. He liked that.
He asked, “We taking bets? Over.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Number of kills. Over.”
“Just get to it.”
Mustin started on the south end of Main and worked slowly north.
Three left to wish they were dead, dragging themselves across the pavement.
He moved up to Seventh Street, made his adjustments, and went to work. Near the school, he sighted down a group of eighteen abbies sleeping in the street. He shot four of them before the others woke up and realized they were under attack. Brought down five more as they scattered.
It went on like this, and he had to admit it was the most fun he’d ever had with his AWM sniper rifle.