Since her arrival in Pines, she had wondered if this was her afterlife. At the very least, it was her life after.
After her job as a paralegal.
After almost all of her relationships.
After living in a free world, that for all its complexities and tragedies still made sense.
But in her five years here, she had aged, and so had others. People had died, disappeared, been murdered. Babies had been born. That didn’t align with any concept of an afterlife she had heard of, but then again, by definition, how could you ever know what to expect outside the realm of the living, breathing human experience?
Over the years of her residency, it had steadily dawned on her that Pines felt much closer to a prison than any afterlife, although perhaps there was no meaningful distinction.
A mysterious and beautiful lifelong sentence.
It wasn’t just a physical confinement, but a mental one as well, and it was the mental aspect that made it feel like a stint in solitary. The inability to outwardly acknowledge one’s past or thoughts or fears. The inability to truly connect with a single human being. There were moments of course. Few and far between. Sustained eye contact, even with a stranger, when the intensity seemed to suggest the inner turmoil.
Those times, Theresa at least felt the warmth of humanity, of not being so utterly and helplessly alone. It was the fakeness that killed her. The forced conversations about the weather. About the latest crop from the gardens. Why the milk was late. About everything surface and nothing real. In Pines, it was only ever small talk, and getting accustomed to that level of interaction had been one of the toughest hurdles to her integration.
But every fourth Thursday, she got to leave work early, and for a brief window, the rules let up.
Theresa locked the door behind her and set off down the sidewalk.
It was a quiet afternoon, but that was nothing new.
There were never loud ones.
She walked south along Main Street. The sky was a staggering, cloudless blue. There was no wind. No cars. She didn’t know what month it was—only time and days of the week were counted—but it felt like late August or early September. A transitional quality to the light that hinted at the death of a season.
The air mild with summer, the light gold with fall.
And the aspen on the cusp of turning.
The lobby of the hospital was empty.
Theresa took the elevator to the third floor, stepped out into the hallway, checked the time.
The corridor was long.
Fluorescent lights hummed above the checkerboard floor. Theresa walked halfway down until she reached the chair sitting outside a closed, unmarked door.
She took a seat.
The noise of the lights seemed to get louder the longer she waited.
The door beside her opened.
A woman emerged and smiled down at her. She had perfect white teeth and a face that struck Theresa as both beautiful and remote. Unknowable. Her eyes were greener than Theresa’s, and she’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail.
Theresa said, “Hi, Pam.”
“Hello, Theresa. Why don’t you come on in?”
The room was bland and sterile.
White walls absent any painting or photograph.
Just a chair, a desk, a leather divan.
“Please,” Pam said in a soothing voice that sounded vaguely robotic, gesturing for Theresa to lie down.
Theresa stretched out on the divan.
Pam took a seat in the chair and crossed her legs. She wore a white lab coat over a gray skirt and black-rimmed glasses.
She said, “It’s good to see you again, Theresa.”
“How have you been?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“I believe this is the first time you’ve come to see me since your husband’s return.”
“Must be so good to have him back.”
Pam slid the pen out of her lapel pocket and clicked out the tip. She turned her swivel chair toward the desk, put the pen to a legal pad with Theresa’s name scrawled across the top, and said, “Do I hear a but coming?”
“No, it’s just that it’s been five years. A lot has happened.”
“And now it feels like you’re married to a stranger?”
“We’re rusty. Awkward. And of course, it’s not like we can just sit down and talk about Pines. About this insane situation we’re in. He’s thrown back into my life and we’re expected to function like a perfect family unit.”
Pam scribbled on the pad.
“How would you say Ethan is adapting?”
“To you. Ben. His new job. Everything.”
“I don’t know. Like I said, it’s not like we can communicate. You’re the only person I’m allowed to really talk to.”
Pam faced Theresa again. “Do you find yourself wondering what he knows?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. Ethan was the subject of a fête, and the only person in the history of Pines to escape one. Do you wonder if he made it out of town? What he saw? Why he returned?”
“But I would never ask him.”
“But you wonder.”
“Of course I do. It’s like he died and came back to life. He has answers to questions that haunt me. But I would never ask him.”
“Have you and Ethan been intimate yet?”
Theresa felt a deep blush flooding through her face as she stared up at the ceiling.
“How many times?”
“How was it?”
None of your f**king business.
But she said, “The first two times were a little clunky. Yesterday was far and away the best.”
“Did you come?”
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Theresa. Your ability or lack thereof to have an orgasm is a reflection on your state of mind.” Pam smirked. “And possibly Ethan’s skills. As your psychiatrist, I need to know.”
“Yes, you had one?”
“Yesterday, I did.”
Theresa watched Pam draw an O with a smiley face beside it.
“I worry about him,” Theresa said.
“He went out in the middle of the night last night. Didn’t come back until dawn. I don’t know where he went. I can’t ask. I get that. I assume he was chasing someone trying to leave.”