After a half mile, he climbed a small rise and stumbled out onto the road. He hadn’t returned the way he’d intended, but still he’d only missed his Bronco by a few hundred feet. Exhaustion hit him. No idea what time it was, but it had been a long, long day, a long, long night, and the dawn of a brand-new one loomed.
He reached the Bronco, emptied the shotgun, stowed it on the rack.
So tired he could’ve lain across the console and slept.
The stench of the electrocution was just as potent—would probably take days to leave.
At some point tomorrow, Theresa would ask him if everything was okay, and he would smile and say, “Yeah, honey. I’m fine. And how are you?”
And she would answer with those intense eyes that seemed completely disconnected from her words, “Just great.”
He cranked the engine.
The rage came out of nowhere.
He pinned the gas pedal to the floorboard.
The tires squealed, bit blacktop, launched him.
He tore around the curve and down the straightaway toward the outskirts of town.
The billboard disgusted him more every time he saw it—a family with bright white smiles waving like something out of a 1950s sitcom.
WELCOME TO WAYWARD PINES
WHERE PARADISE IS HOME
Ethan sped alongside a split-rail fence.
Through the passenger window, he could see the herd of cattle congregated in the pasture.
A row of white barns at the edge of the trees glowing in the starlight.
He looked back through the windshield.
The Bronco bounced over something large enough to jar the steering wheel out of his hands.
The vehicle lurched toward the shoulder, beelining for the fence at sixty-five miles per hour.
He grabbed the wheel, cranked it back, felt the suspension lift up on two tires. For a horrifying second, the wheels screeched across pavement and his right side dug into the shoulder strap.
He felt the g-force in his chest, his face.
Through the windshield caught a glimpse of the constellations spinning.
His foot had slipped off the gas pedal and he could no longer hear the engine revving—just three seconds of silence save for the wind screaming over the windshield as the Bronco flipped.
When the roof finally met the road, the collision was deafening.
Sparks where the metal dragged across pavement.
And then the Bronco was motionless, upright on four wheels, two of them still holding air. Steam hissing up through the cracks along the hood.
Ethan smelled gasoline. Scorched rubber. Coolant. Blood.
He clutched the steering wheel so hard it took him a moment to pry his hands open.
He was still strapped into the seat. His shirt covered in safety glass. He reached down, unbuckled the seat belt, relieved to feel his arms working without pain. Shifting his legs, they seemed okay. His door wouldn’t open, but the glass had been completely busted out of the window. Up onto his knees, he dragged himself through the opening and fell to the road. Now he felt the pain. Nothing stabbing—just a slowly building ache that seemed to flood out of his head and down into the rest of his body.
He made it onto his feet.
Bent over, thought he might be sick, but the nausea passed.
Ethan brushed the glass off his face, the left side stinging from a gash that had already streamed blood over his jawline, down his neck, and under his shirt.
He glanced back at the Bronco. It stood perpendicular across the double yellow, right-side tires robbed of air, the SUV slouched away from him. Most of the glass was gone and there were long scores across the paint job like the claws of a predator had raked it.
He staggered away from the Bronco, following gas and oil and other fluids like a blood trail up the road.
Stepped over the light bar that had been ripped off.
A side mirror lay on its side on the shoulder like a plucked eye, wires dangling from the housing.
Cows groaned in the distance, heads raised, faces turned toward the commotion.
Ethan stopped just shy of the billboard and stared ahead at the object lying in the road, the object that had nearly killed him.
It looked like a ghost. Pale. Still.
He limped on until he stood over her. Didn’t immediately recall her name, but he’d seen this woman around town. She’d held some position of authority at the community gardens. Midtwenties he suspected. Black hair to her shoulders. Bangs. Now she was naked and her skin a serene, dead blue like sea ice. It seemed to glow in the dark. Except for the holes. So many of them. Something clinical, not desperate, in the pattern. He started to count but stopped himself. Didn’t want that number rattling around in his head. Only her face had been left untouched. Her lips had lost all color, and the largest, darkest slit in the center of her chest looked like a small, black mouth, open in surprise. Maybe that was the one that had killed her. Several others could have easily done the job. But she was clean of any blood. In fact, the only other mark on her skin was the tire track where his Bronco had rolled across her abdomen, the tread clearly visible.
His first thought was that he needed to get the police.
And then: You are the police.
There’d been talk of him hiring a deputy or two, but it hadn’t happened yet.
Ethan sat down in the road.
The shock of the wreck had begun to fade, and he was growing cold.
After a while, he got up. Couldn’t just leave her here, not even for a couple of hours. He lifted the woman in his arms and carried her off the road into the woods. She wasn’t as cold as he would’ve thought. Still warm even. Bloodless and warm—an eerie combination. Twenty feet in, he found a grove of scrub oak. He ducked under the branches and set her down gently on a bed of dead leaves. There was nowhere to take her now, but it felt wrong just leaving her here. He folded her hands across her stomach. When he reached for the top button on his shirt, he discovered that his hands were still trembling. He tore it open, took it off, covered her with it.
Said, “I’ll be back for you, I promise.”
Ethan walked out to the road. For a moment, he considered putting the Bronco into neutral, rolling it off onto the shoulder. But it wasn’t like anyone would be driving out here in the next few hours. The dairy wouldn’t be making its milk deliveries until late tomorrow afternoon. He’d have time to clean this up before then.
Ethan started back toward town, the lights of the houses of Pines twinkling in the valley ahead.
So perfectly deceptively peaceful.
Dawn was on the verge as Ethan walked into his house.
He drew the hottest bath he could stand in the clawfoot tub downstairs. Cleaned up his face. Scrubbed off the blood. The heat dimmed the body ache and the throbbing behind his eyes.