He and Ben ended up at the chocolate counter.
Homemade fudge in all its permutations beckoned from beneath the glass.
Ethan said, “Pick out whatever you want.”
Armed with hot chocolates and a paper bag heavy with an assortment of fudge, Ethan and Ben strolled the sidewalk.
This was the busiest time of day in Wayward Pines, with school having just let out and the streets wonderfully noisy with the laughter of children.
It never felt more real than this.
Ethan said, “Let’s find a place to sit.”
He led his boy across the street to the bench on the corner of Main and Ninth.
They sat drinking their hot chocolates and nibbling at the fudge and watching people walk by.
Ethan said, “I remember when I was your age. You’re a much better kid than I was. Smarter too.”
The boy looked up, fudge crumbs around his mouth.
Between his glasses and the earflaps that hung down from his hunting cap, Ethan thought he bore a strong resemblance to Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
“Oh yeah. I was a little shit. Mouthy. Full-on rebellious streak.”
This seemed to amuse Ben.
He sipped his hot chocolate.
“School used to be just school,” Ethan said. “We had homework. Parent-teacher conferences. Report cards.”
“What’s a report card?”
“A slip that showed what your grades were for a quarter. You probably don’t really remember when you went to school in Seattle. This one’s a little different.”
Now Ben stared down at the pavement under their feet.
“What’s wrong, son?”
“You’re not supposed to talk about that.” He said it in a grave, quiet voice.
“Ben, look at me.”
The boy looked up.
“I’m the sheriff of Wayward Pines. I can talk about whatever the hell I want. You understand, I run this town.”
The boy shook his head. “No you don’t.”
Now Ben’s eyes were filling up with tears.
“We can’t talk about this,” he said.
“I’m your father. There’s nothing you and I can’t talk about.”
“You aren’t my father.”
A shiv straight into Ethan’s gut would’ve felt better.
He lost his breath.
Saw the world suddenly through a blur of tears.
He barely found his voice. “Ben? What are you talking about?”
“Not my real one.”
“I’m not your real father?”
“You don’t understand. You never will. I’m going home.”
Ben started to stand, but Ethan put his arm around him, held him to the bench.
“Let go of me!”
“Who do you think your real father is?” Ethan asked.
“I’m not supposed to talk about—”
“The one who protects us!”
“Protects from what?”
The boy glared up at Ethan, all tears and vitriol, and said, “The demons past the fence.”
“You’ve been beyond the fence?” Ethan asked.
The boy nodded.
“Who took you?”
“Was it a short, older man with a shaved head and black eyes?”
Ben didn’t answer, but it was an answer.
“Look at me, son. Look at me. What do you mean when you say he’s your father?”
“I told you. He protects us. He provides for us. He created all of this, everything we have in Wayward Pines.”
“That man is not God, if that’s what you’ve been—”
“Don’t say that.”
Ethan thinking, If there were no other reason for burning this place to the ground, it’s this. They’re stealing our children away from us.
“Ben, there are things in this world that are true and that are lies. Are you listening to me? Your mother’s and my love for you—there is nothing truer than that. Do you love me?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you trust me?”
“That man who took you past the fence is not God. He’s the furthest thing from it. His name is David Pilcher.”
“You know him?”
“I work for him. See him almost every day.”
Suddenly, Megan Fisher was standing in front of them.
Ethan hadn’t even heard her footsteps.
She’d come out of nowhere.
Kneeling down carefully in her woolen skirt, she put her hand on Ben’s knee.
“Everything okay, Benjamin?”
Ethan forced a smile. “We’re fine, Megan,” he said. “Rough day at school. I’m sure you know how that goes. But nothing a little trip to The Sweet Tooth can’t fix.”
“What happened, Benjamin?”
The boy was staring down into his lap, literally crying into his hot chocolate.
Ethan said, “It’s kind of a private matter.”
This snapped Megan’s head up.
Gone was the perky, pleasant host who had welcomed him and Theresa into her home several nights ago.
She said, “Private?”
Like she didn’t understand the meaning of the word.
Like Ben was her son and it was Ethan overstepping his bounds.
“At School of the Pines,” she went on, “we believe in a community approach to—”
“Yeah, private. Like mind-your-own-fucking-business private, Mrs. Fisher.”
The look on her face—pure shock and disgust—made Ethan fairly confident she had never been spoken to like that before. Certainly not since she’d woken up in Wayward Pines and attained this position of power.
Megan stood straight up and scowled down at him like only a teacher can.
She said, “They’re our children, Mr. Burke.”
He said, “Like hell.”
As she stormed off down the sidewalk, Ben launched out of his father’s grasp and sprinted away across the street.
“Afternoon, Belinda,” Ethan said as he walked into the sheriff’s office.
She didn’t look up from her cards.
“Anyone been by?”
He rapped his knuckles on her desk as he walked past, said, “Hope you’re in the mood for some big fun tonight.”
He could feel her eyes on him as he moved on down the hallway toward his office, but he didn’t look back.
Inside, he hung his hat on the coatrack.