“Do you ever have thoughts about leaving?”
“Not in several years.”
“Why is that?”
“At first, I wanted to. I felt like I was still living in the old world. Like this was a prison or an experiment. But it’s strange—the longer I stayed here, the more it became normal.”
“Not knowing why I was here. What this town really was. What was beyond.”
“And why do you think it became more normal to you?”
“Maybe this is just me adapting or giving in, but I realized that as strange as this town was, it wasn’t all that different from my life before. Not when I really held them up against each other. Most interaction in the old world was shallow and superficial. My job in Seattle was as a paralegal working for an insurance defense firm. Helping insurance companies f**k people out of their coverage. Here, I sit in an office all day long and hardly talk to anyone. Equally useless jobs, but at least this one isn’t actively hurting people. The old world was filled with mysteries beyond my understanding—the universe, God, what happens when we die. And there are plenty of mysteries here. Same dynamics. Same human frailties. It just all happens to exist in this little valley.”
“So you’re saying it’s all relative.”
“Do you believe this is the afterlife, Theresa?”
“I don’t even know what that means. Do you?”
Pam just smiled. It was a facade, no comfort in it. Pure mask. The thought crossed Theresa’s mind, and not for the first time—who is this woman I’m spilling all my secrets to? To some extent, the exposure was terrifying. But the compulsion to actually connect with another human being tipped the scales.
Theresa said, “I guess I just see Pines as a new phase of my life.”
“What’s the hardest thing about it?”
“About what? Living here?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Why am I continuing to breathe in and out? I would think that’s the hardest question for everyone stuck in this place to answer.”
“And how do you answer it, Theresa?”
“My son. Ethan. Finding a great book. Snowstorms. But it’s not like my old life. There’s no dream house to live for. No lottery. I used to fantasize about going to law school and starting my own practice. Becoming fulfilled and rich. Retiring with Ethan somewhere warm with a clear blue sea and white sand. Where it never rains.”
“And your son?”
Theresa hadn’t seen it coming. Those three little words hit her with the sneaky power of a surprise right.
The ceiling she’d been staring at disappeared behind a sheet of tears.
“Ben’s future was your biggest hope, right?” Pam asked.
Theresa nodded, and when she blinked, two lines of saltwater ran out of the corners of her eyes and down her face.
“His wedding?” Pam asked.
“An illustrious career that made him happy and you proud?”
“It’s more than that.”
“It’s what I was just talking about. Hope. I want it so badly for him, but he’ll never know it. What can the children of Pines aspire to be? What foreign lands do they dream of visiting?”
“Have you considered that maybe this idea of hope, at least the way that you conceive of it, is a holdover from your past life, that serves no purpose?”
“You’re saying abandon hope all ye who enter here?”
“No, I’m saying live in the moment. That maybe in Pines there’s joy to be had in just surviving. That you continue to breathe in and out because you can breathe in and out. Love the simple things you experience every day. All this natural beauty. The sound of your son’s voice. Ben will grow up to live a happy life here.”
“Has it occurred to you that your son may no longer share your old-world concept of happiness? That he’s growing up in a town that cultivates exactly the sort of in-the-moment living I just described?”
“It’s just so insular.”
“So take him and leave.”
“Are you serious?”
“We’d be killed.”
“But you might escape. Some have left, though they’ve never returned. Do you secretly fear that, as bad as you think it is in Pines, it could be a million times worse on the outside?”
Theresa wiped her eyes. “Yes.”
“One last thing,” Pam said. “Have you opened up to Ethan about what happened prior to his arrival? Your, um… living situation… I mean.”
“Of course not. It’s only been two weeks.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“What’s the point?”
“You don’t think your husband deserves to know?”
“It would only cause hurt.”
“Your son might tell him.”
“Ben won’t. We already talked about it.”
“Last time you were here, you rated your depression on a scale of one to ten as a seven. How about today? Are you feeling better, worse, or the same?”
Pam opened a drawer and took out a small white bottle that rattled with pills.
“You’ve been taking your medication?”
“Yes,” Theresa lied.
Pam set the bottle on the desktop. “One a day, at bedtime, just like before. It’ll last you until our next appointment.”
Theresa sat up.
She felt like she always did after these things finished—emotionally ragged.
“Can I ask you something?” Theresa said.
“I assume you talk to a lot of people. Hear everyone’s private fears. Will this place ever feel like home?”
“I don’t know,” Pam said as she stood. “That’s entirely up to you.”
The morgue was in the basement of the hospital through a pair of windowless doors.
Far end of the east wing.
Pilcher’s men had arrived ahead of Ethan with the body, and they stood in jeans and flannel shirts outside the entrance. The taller of the two, a man with Nordic features and head of Pilcher’s security team, looked visibly upset.
“Thanks for bringing her down,” Ethan said as he moved past and shouldered through one of the doors. “You don’t have to wait.”