The smell was eye watering.

The noise like a hundred thousand people being simultaneously skinned alive.

It looked utterly alien, and as he crawled away from it, the realization hit him right between the eyes.

That monstrosity was a city.

The abbies were building a civilization.

The planet was theirs.

He woke.

There was light again—a soft, tentative blue loitering in the clearing.

Everything glazed with frost and his pant legs had frozen stiff below the knee.

The abbies were gone.

He was shivering uncontrollably.

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He needed to get up, get moving, take a piss, build a fire, but he didn’t dare.

No telling how long since the swarm had moved out.

The sun climbed above the cliff and sunlight hit the clearing.

Frost steamed off the grass.

He’d been awake now for three or four hours and there hadn’t been so much as the sound of a leaf twittering in the surrounding forest.

Tobias sat up.

The soreness from yesterday’s sprint fired inside every muscle—like overtightened guitar strings. He looked around, his extremities beginning to burn as the blood reached them.

Struggling to his feet, it dawned on him.

He was still breathing.

Still standing.

Somehow—alive.

Above him, the scarlet leaves in the scrub oaks glowed, backlit by the sun.

He stared past them into a blue unrivaled by any sky in his life before.

15

When Ethan woke, Theresa and Ben had already left for work and school.

He’d barely slept.

He walked naked across the frigid hardwood to the window and scraped the glaze of ice off the inside of the glass.

The light coming through was still weak enough to suggest the sun had yet to clear the eastern wall of mountains that loomed over town.

Theresa had warned him that in the heart of winter there always came a month-long span—the four weeks that framed the solstice—when the sun never made it above the cliffs that encircled Wayward Pines.

He skipped breakfast.

Grabbed a coffee to go at the Steaming Bean.

Walked south out of town.

He’d woken up with regret fermenting, like a morning-after hangover—everything still hazy from the night before and a sinking feeling he’d f**ked up badly.

Because he had.

He’d told Theresa.

It was almost inconceivable.

To be fair, he’d already been messed up after seeing Kate, and his wife had used her formidable wiles to get exactly what she wanted. Truth was, he didn’t yet know how tragic of a mistake it was. Worst case—Theresa slipped, told others, and slit this town down the middle. Pilcher would call a fête. He’d lose a wife. Ben would lose his mother. It killed him to even imagine it.

On the other hand, he couldn’t deny that it had felt so damn good to finally tell someone, no less his wife. The woman from whom he was supposed to keep no secrets. If she could keep her mouth shut, if she could handle the information—no slips, no moments of weakness, no lapses, no freak-outs—then at least there was another human being to share the weight of this crushing knowledge. At least Theresa might finally understand the burden he shouldered every day of his life.

Walking down the middle of the road, he glanced up at the Wayward Pines “goodbye” sign—a family of four frozen mid-smile, mid-wave.

WE HOPE YOU ENJOYED YOUR VISIT TO WAYWARD PINES!

DON’T BE A STRANGER! COME BACK SOON!

Of course, that was only the setup to Pilcher’s grand joke.

The road simply curved back around a half mile later to deliver its hysterical punch line.

That same perfect, smiling family on a billboard, greeting everyone with:

WELCOME TO WAYWARD PINES

WHERE PARADISE IS HOME

It wasn’t that Ethan didn’t appreciate the irony, and on some level, even the humor. But considering last night and the shit-show his life was fast becoming, more than anything he just wished he’d brought his twelve gauge along to pepper those obnoxious, happy faces with buckshot.

Next time.

The proposition certainly held the promise of therapy.

He finished his coffee as he reached the woods and chucked the dregs.

Had started to crumple the Styrofoam cup when he saw something on the inside.

It was Kate’s handwriting.

In fine, black Sharpie:

3:00 a.m. Corner of Main and Eighth. Stand by the front doors of the opera house. No chip or don’t bother coming.

The tunnel door was already raised and Pam waited for him, sitting on the front bumper of the Jeep in black spandex shorts and a Lycra tank top. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail but still sweat-darkened from what looked to have been a punishing workout.

Ethan said, “You look like the cover of a bad muscle car magazine.”

“I’m freezing my tits off out here.”

“You’re barely dressed.”

“Just finished ninety minutes on the bike. Didn’t figure you’d be this late.”

“I had a long night.”

“Chasing down your old flame?”

Ethan ignored this and climbed into the passenger seat.

Pam cranked the engine, gunned them out into the forest, and spun a one-eighty that would’ve flung Ethan out of the Jeep if he hadn’t grabbed the roll bar at the last second.

She floored it back into the tunnel, and as the camouflaged door closed behind them, they screamed up into the heart of the mountain.

Riding the elevator to Pilcher’s floor, Pam said, “Do me a favor this afternoon.”

“What?”

“Check in on Wayne Johnson.”

“The new arrival?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Too early to tell. He just woke up yesterday. I’ll have a copy of his file sent back to town with you, but I saw a surveillance report that indicated he had walked the road to the edge of town this morning.”

“He make it to the fence?”

“No, he didn’t leave the road, but he apparently stood there staring into the trees for a long time.”

“What do you want me to do exactly?”

“Just talk to him. Make sure he understands the rules. What’s expected. The consequences.”

“You want me to threaten him.”

“If you think that’s what’s needed. It’d be nice if you could help lead him down the path to believing he’s dead.”

“How?”

Pam grinned and punched Ethan in the arm hard enough to give him a charley horse.

“Ouch.”

“Figure it out, dummy. It can be fun, you know.”