Listening?

A dial tone blared in Ethan’s ear.

He crept upstairs and dressed in the darkness. Theresa was still awake, sitting up in bed and watching as he threaded his belt through the loops.

“Everything okay, honey?” she asked.

“Fine,” Ethan said. “Work stuff.”

Yeah, just have to stop one of our neighbors from trying to leave our little slice of paradise in the middle of the night. No big deal. Nothing weird here.

Ethan walked over and kissed his wife on the forehead.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Hopefully before morning.”

She didn’t say anything, only grabbed his hand and squeezed hard enough to move the bones.

Nighttime in Wayward Pines.

A wonderland of stillness.

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The crickets turned off.

So quiet Ethan could hear the streetlamps humming.

The pounding of his own biologic engine.

He walked down to the curb and climbed into the black Ford Bronco with a light bar across the roof and, on the doors, the exact WP emblem that was engraved on his sheriff’s star.

The engine gargled.

Ethan shifted into gear.

Tried to pull gently out into the street, but the 4.9-liter straight six had been bored out and was loud as hell.

The noise would undoubtedly wake people.

Cars were rarely driven in Pines—you could cross town on foot in fifteen minutes.

Cars were never driven in Pines at night.

Their purpose was decorative, and anyone whose slumber was disturbed by the roar of Ethan’s Bronco would know that something had come off the rails.

He turned onto Main and headed south.

After the hospital, he hit the high beams and pushed the gas pedal into the floor, accelerating into a narrow corridor of tall pines.

With the window down, the cold forest air streamed in.

He drove down the middle of the road, tires straddling the double yellow.

Imagining there was no turn coming, that soon the road would begin to climb.

Out of this valley, away from this town.

He would reach down and turn on the radio, surf the airwaves until he found a station that played the oldies. It would be a three-hour trip back to Boise. Nothing like driving on an open road at night with the windows down and good music blasting. It was only for a split second, but he caught the feeling of living in a world full of others like him. A nightscape light-ridden with the glow of great cities. The distant roar of interstate traffic and jets thundering through the stratosphere.

The sense of not being so goddamn alone.

The endlings of their species, of humanity.

The speedometer needle edged toward seventy, the engine screaming.

He’d already blown past the sharp curve ahead sign.

Ethan stomped on the brake and lurched forward as the Bronco skidded to a stop in the vertex of the curve. He pulled over onto the shoulder, killed the engine, climbed out.

Soles of his boots scraping across the pavement.

For a moment, he hesitated with the door open, staring at the Winchester ’97 cradled in the gun rack above the seats. He didn’t want to take it for the message it might send to McCall. He didn’t want to leave it, because these were dark and scary woods and the world they bordered hostile beyond reckoning. There had never been a fence breach to his knowledge, but there was a first time for everything, and being out in these trees in the middle of the night unarmed was just taunting Murphy’s Law.

Leaning back in, he opened the center console and jammed his pockets full with shells. Then he reached up and lifted the twelve-gauge off the rack. It was a pump-action tube feed with a walnut stock and fifteen inches of the barrel sawn off.

Ethan fed in five shells, racked one into the chamber, and set the hammer to half-cocked—the closest thing to a safety on this beautiful dinosaur of a weapon.

With the shotgun laid across his shoulder blades and his arms draped over the stock and barrel, Ethan stepped down off the shoulder and started into the woods.

Colder here than in town.

A yard-thick blanket of mist hovered over the floor of the forest.

The moon had yet to clear the wall of cliffs.

It was dark enough under the trees for a flashlight.

Ethan turned on the beam, moved deeper into the woods. Trying to keep on the straightest trajectory possible so he could find his way back to the road.

Ethan heard the electrified hum before he saw it—cutting through the mist like a sustained bass note.

The profile of the fence appeared in the distance.

A rampart running through the forest.

As he drew near, details emerged.

Twenty-five-foot steel pylons spaced seventy-five feet apart. Bundles of conductors stretched between them, separated every ten feet with spacers. The cables an inch thick, studded with spikes and enwrapped with razor wire.

There was ongoing debate within Pilcher’s inner circle regarding whether the fence would remain viable in a loss-of-power situation—whether or not the height and the razor wire alone could keep the abbies out. Ethan figured there wasn’t much of anything that could stop several thousand starving abbies from tearing through if they wanted—with or without electricity.

Ethan stopped five feet from the wire.

He broke off two low-hanging limbs and marked the spot with an X.

Then he headed east, walking parallel to the fence.

After a quarter mile, he stopped to listen.

There was the constant hum.

His own breathing.

The sound of something moving through the forest on the other side of the fence.

Footfalls in pine needles.

The occasional snap of a branch.

A deer?

An abby?

“Sheriff?”

The voice straightened Ethan’s spine like an electrical current had ripped through it and he swung the shotgun off his shoulders and leveled the barrel on Peter McCall.

The man stood ten feet away beside the trunk of a giant pine, dressed in dark clothes and a black baseball cap. He had a small backpack slung over his shoulder. To the pack, he’d lashed two plastic milk jugs filled with water, which sloshed as he stepped forward.

He carried no weapon that Ethan could see beyond a walking stick with more curve than an old man’s backbone.

“Jesus, Peter. What the hell are you doing out here?”

The man smiled but Ethan saw fear in it. “If I said I was just out for a late walk, would you believe me?”

Ethan lowered the shotgun.

“You shouldn’t be out here.”

“I’d heard rumors there was a fence in these woods. Always wanted to see it.”

“Well, there it is. Now you’ve seen it. Let’s walk back to town.”

Peter said, “ ‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in, or walling out.’ Robert Frost wrote that.”