“Not yet. Look, Ethan. I’m not asking you to like all of this. I don’t like it.”
“Where are we going?” Ethan asked as the image of his wife was replaced with the image of two boys building sand castles in a sandbox. “As a species I mean.” He fixed his gaze back on Pilcher. “I get what you’ve done here. That you’ve preserved our existence far beyond what evolution had in mind. But was it just for this? So a small contingent of humanity could live in a valley under 24-7 surveillance? Shielded from the truth? Occasionally forced to kill one of their own? It’s not a life, David. It’s a prison sentence. And you’ve made me the warden. I want the best for these people. For my family.”
Pilcher rolled back in his chair away from the desk, spun it around, and stared through the glass at the town he had made.
“We’ve been here fourteen years, Ethan. There are less than a thousand of us and hundreds of millions of them. Sometimes the best you can do is simply survive.”
The camouflaged tunnel door closed shut behind him.
Ethan stood alone in the woods.
He moved away from the rock outcropping back toward the road.
The sun had already dropped behind the western wall of cliffs.
A crisp, golden quality to the sky.
A night-is-coming chill to the air.
The road into Pines was empty, and Ethan walked down the middle of the double yellow.
Home was 1040 Sixth Street, a Victorian just a few blocks from Main. Yellow with white trim. Pleasant and creaky. Ethan moved across the flagstones and up onto the porch.
He opened the screened door, the solid wood door.
Said, “Honey, I’m home!”
There was no answer.
Only the silent, clenched energy of an empty house.
He topped the coat rack with his cowboy hat and sat down on a ladder-back chair to wrestle off his boots.
In sock feet, he crossed to the kitchen. The milk had come. Four glass bottles rattled against one another when he pulled open the door to the fridge. He grabbed one and carried it down the hallway into the study. This was Ethan’s favorite room in the house. If he sat in the oversized upholstered chair by the window, he could bask in the knowledge that he wasn’t being watched. Most buildings in Pines had one or two blind spots. On his third trip to the superstructure, he’d gotten his hands on the surveillance schematics for his house. Memorized the location of every camera. He’d asked Pilcher if he could have them removed, and been denied. Pilcher wanted Ethan to have the full experience of living under surveillance so he could relate to the people under his authority.
There was comfort in knowing that, in this moment, no one could see him. Of course, they knew his precise location at all times thanks to the microchip embedded under his hamstring. Ethan had known better than to ask if he could be exempted from that security measure.
Ethan popped the top off the glass bottle and took a swig.
It wasn’t the kind of thing he could say to Theresa (with people listening), but he’d often thought that out of all the terrible hardships attendant to their life in Pines—no privacy, no freedom, the ever-present threat of death—this daily milk from the dairy in the southeast corner of the valley had to be the one bright spot.
It was cold and creamy and fresh, with a grassy sweetness.
Out the window, he could see into the next-door neighbor’s backyard. Jennifer Rochester knelt over a raised flowerbed, scooping in handfuls of soil from a red wheelbarrow. He recalled her file before he could stop the thought. In her past life, she’d been a professor of education at Washington State University. Here in Pines, she waited tables four nights a week at the Biergarten. With the exception of a brutal integration that almost didn’t take, she had been a model resident.
He didn’t want to think about work, about the private details of his neighbors’ lives.
What must they think of him under the surface?
He shuddered at his life.
They hit him occasionally, these moments of despair. There was no way out, no other man he could be—not if he wanted to keep his family safe.
That had been made abundantly clear.
Ethan knew he should probably read the report on McCall, but instead he opened the drawer in the accent table beside him and took out the book of poetry.
A short collection of his nature poems.
Whereas Hemingway had crushed him this morning, in Frost, Ethan always found solace.
He read for an hour.
Of mending walls and snowy woods and roads not taken.
The sky darkened.
He heard his wife’s footsteps on the porch.
Ethan met her at the door.
“How was your day?” he asked.
Theresa’s eyes seemed to whisper, I sat behind a desk for eight hours at a meaningless job and didn’t speak to another soul, but she forced a smile and said, “It was great. And yours?”
I met with the man responsible for this prison we call home and picked up a secret file on one of our neighbors.
“Mine was great too.”
She ran her hand down his chest. “I’m glad you didn’t change yet. I love you in uniform.”
Ethan embraced his wife.
Breathed in her smell.
Fingers gliding through her long blond hair.
“I was thinking,” she said.
“Ben won’t be home from Matthew’s for another hour.”
“Is that right?”
She took Ethan by the hand and pulled him toward the staircase.
“You sure?” he asked. They’d only been together twice in the two weeks since their reunion, both times in Ethan’s favorite chair in the study, Theresa sitting in his lap, his hands on her hips—an awkward entanglement.
“I want you,” she said.
“Let’s go in the study.”
“No,” she said. “Our bed.”
He followed her up the steps and down the second-floor hallway, the hardwood groaning under their footfalls.
They stumbled kissing into the bedroom, their hands all over each other, Ethan trying to ground himself in the moment, but he couldn’t push the cameras out of his mind.
One behind the thermostat on the wall beside the bathroom door.
One in the light fixture in the ceiling looking straight down on their bed.
He was hesitating, conflicted, and Theresa sensed it.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she asked.
They were standing beside the bed.
Out the window, the lights of Pines were coming on—streetlamps, porch lights, houselights.