After a moment, the door opened.
A rotund, balding, gray-skinned man looked up at Ethan, squinting against the light.
He wore a bathrobe, and what hair he still had looked slept-on and uncombed.
“Mr. Johnson?” Ethan said.
“Hi, I just wanted to swing by and introduce myself. I’m Ethan Burke, sheriff of Wayward Pines.” It felt strangely dirty claiming that position.
The man stared at him, confused.
“Would it be all right if I came in for a minute?”
The house still smelled unlived-in and sterile.
They sat at a small kitchen table.
Ethan took off his Stetson and unbuttoned his parka.
Casserole dishes and plates wrapped in tinfoil lined the counters.
Neighbors no doubt had been called and urged to bring lunch and dinner to Mr. Johnson during this first difficult week.
The three plates within eyeshot looked untouched.
“Are you eating?” Ethan asked.
“Haven’t really had much of an appetite. People have been bringing food over.”
“Good, so you’re meeting the neighbors.”
Wayne Johnson ignored this.
The Wayward Pines Welcome Manual issued to each resident upon their arrival lay open across the table’s faux-wood veneer. Seventy-five pages of dire threats sugarcoated as “suggestions” for living a happy life in Pines. Ethan’s first week as sheriff had been spent memorizing it cover-to-cover. The book was currently open to the page that explained how food was distributed through the winter months when the gardens were in deep freeze.
“They tell me,” Wayne said, “that I’m going to be working soon.”
The man put his hands in his lap and stared at them.
“What will I be doing?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Are you one of the people I can actually talk to?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Ethan said. “Right now, you can ask me whatever you want, Mr. Johnson.”
“Why is this happening to me?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Or you won’t tell me?”
There was a section toward the beginning of the welcome manual entitled “How to Handle Questions, Fears, and Doubts About Where You Are.”
Ethan pulled the manual over and thumbed through to that section.
“This chapter might offer you some guidance,” Ethan said.
He felt like he was reading off a very bad script, which he didn’t believe in.
“Guidance for what? I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what happened to me. And no one will tell me anything. I don’t need guidance, I need f**king answers.”
“I understand your frustration,” Ethan said.
“Why doesn’t the phone work? I’ve tried to call my mother five times. It just rings and rings. That isn’t right. She’s always home, always by the phone.”
Ethan had been in Wayne Johnson’s shoes not long ago.
Coming unhinged as he ran around town trying to make contact with the outside world.
Pilcher and Pam had set out to make Ethan believe he was losing his mind. That had been their integration plan for him from the start. Wayne Johnson’s was different. He was getting what most people got: several weeks to explore town, explore the boundaries, and have several freak-outs before the tough love kicked in.
“I walked the road out of town this morning,” Wayne said. “Guess what? It just looped back around into town. That isn’t right. Something’s off. I just drove here a couple days ago. How is it possible that the road I came in on is no longer there?”
“Look, I understand you have some questions and—”
“Where am I?”
His voice filled the house.
“What the hell is this place?”
His face was red and he was shaking.
Ethan heard himself say, “It’s just a town, Mr. Johnson.” And the scary thing was he hadn’t even considered his answer. It had just sprung out of him like it had been programmed. He hated himself for it. He’d been told that very thing over and over during his integration.
The man said, “Just a town? Yeah. Just a town where you aren’t allowed to leave or have contact with the world outside.”
“Understand something,” Ethan said. “Every person in Wayward Pines has sat where you sit, including me. It gets better.”
Congratulations. Now you’re out and out lying to the man.
“I’m telling you that I want to leave, Sheriff. That I don’t want to be here any longer. That I want to go home. Back to my life like it was before. What exactly do you say to that?”
“It’s not possible.”
“Not possible for me to leave?”
“And what authority do you think you have to hold me here against my will?”
He was beginning to feel sick.
“What authority?” the man asked.
“The sooner you make your peace with your new life here, the better things will be for you.”
Ethan put on his hat.
The back of his leg was beginning to hurt.
“I wish you’d just say what you mean,” Mr. Johnson said.
“If I try to leave, you’ll kill me. That’s the gist of it, right? The hard bit of truth you’ve been dancing around?”
Ethan patted the welcome manual. “Everything’s here,” he said. “All you need to know. Inside the town is life. Outside is death. It’s really that simple.”
As Ethan walked out of the kitchen and back toward the front door, Wayne Johnson called after him, “Am I dead?”
Ethan’s hand was on the doorknob.
“Please, Sheriff, just tell me. I can handle it. Did I die in that accident?”
He didn’t need to look back to know the man was crying.
“Is this hell?”
“It’s just a town, Mr. Johnson.”
As Ethan walked outside, a single thought ran through his head.
Pam would be proud.
And he felt, for the first time in his life, truly evil.
Ethan timed his walk home from work to stop by the jewelry store and then to pass by Theresa’s real estate office just as she was quitting for the day. He rounded the corner onto Main, the back of his leg throbbing at the incision site.
The sky had gone overcast and the streetlamps were on and it was bitterly cold.