Authors: Blake Crouch
By four a.m., the house was looking better, and she didn’t feel nearly as drunk, although a pounding had become noticeable behind her eyes—the first indication of the approaching headache.
She popped three Advil and stood at the kitchen sink in the predawn silence, listening as the rain pattered on the deck outside.
She filled the sink with hot water and squirted in the dish soap, watching bubbles begin to populate the surface.
Thrust her hands underwater.
Left them there until the heat became unbearable.
She’d been standing in this exact spot that last night when Ethan came home late from work.
Hadn’t heard the front door close.
Hadn’t heard his footsteps.
She’d been scrubbing a skillet when she felt his hands encircle her waist, his breath on the back of her neck.
She keeps scrubbing, says, “Seven o’clock, eight. That’s late. It’s ten thirty, Ethan. I don’t even know what to call this.”
“How’s our little man?”
“Fell asleep in the living room, waiting to show you his trophy.”
She hates how just the presence of his hands on her body can disarm her anger in a millisecond. She’s felt a blinding attraction to him from the first time she spotted him across the bar in Tini Bigs. Unfair advantage.
“I have to fly to Boise first thing in the morning,” he says into her ear.
“His birthday’s Saturday, Ethan. He turns six only once in his life.”
“I know. And I hate it. But I have to go.”
“You know what it’s gonna do to him, you not being here? How many times he’s going to ask me why you aren’t—”
“I get it, Theresa, all right? You think this hurts you more than it hurts me?”
She pushes his hands off her hips and turns around to face him.
Asks, “Does this new assignment have anything to do with trying to find
“I’m not gonna do this right now, Theresa. I have to be up in five hours to catch my flight. I haven’t even packed.”
He gets halfway out of the kitchen before stopping and turning back around.
For a moment, they just hold each other’s stare, the breakfast table between them and on it the plate of cold food that will be the last meal Ethan eats under this roof.
“You know,” he says, “it’s over. We’ve moved on. But you don’t act like anything has—”
“I’m just tired of it, Ethan.”
“You work, and you work, and you work, and what’s left for us? The dregs.”
He doesn’t respond, but she can see the muscles in his jaw quiver.
Even this late at night, after a fifteen-hour day, he looks amazing, standing under the track lighting in that black suit she never gets tired of seeing him wear.
Already, her anger is ebbing.
A part of her needing to go to him, to be with him.
He has such a hold on her.
Some kind of magic in it.
She comes to him across the kitchen, and he wraps his arms around her, buries his nose in her hair. He does this often, trying as of late to recapture that first-encounter smell—some mix of perfume and conditioner and core essence that once made his heart trip over itself. But it’s either changed now, been lost, or become such an integral part of him that he can no longer detect the scent, which, when he could, always carried him back to those first days. More defining even than her short blonde hair and green eyes. A feeling of newness. A fresh turn. Like a sharp October afternoon and the sky blue and bright and the Cascades and Olympics holding fresh snow and the trees in the city just beginning to turn.
He embraces her.
The sting and the shame of all he’s put her through are still raw. He can’t say for certain, but he suspects that if she’d done the same to him, he’d already be gone. Marvels at her love for him. Her loyalty. So far beyond anything he deserves, it only intensifies the shame.
“I’m gonna go look in on him,” Ethan whispers.
“When I come back down, you’ll sit with me while I eat?”
He drapes his coat over the banister, slips out of his black shoes, and pads up the stairs, skipping over the squeaky fifth step.
There are no bad floorboards the rest of the way, and soon he’s standing in the threshold of the bedroom, easing the door open until a splinter of light has carved through the space between the door and the jamb.
For Ben’s fifth birthday, they painted the walls to reflect space: Blackness. Stars. The swirl of distant galaxies. Planets. The occasional deep-space satellite or rocket. An astronaut drifting.
His son sleeps in a tangle of blankets, a small trophy clutched in his hands—a golden, plastic boy kicking a soccer ball.
Ethan moves quietly across the floor, dodging stray LEGO pieces and Hot Wheels.
Crouches down beside the bed.
His eyes have adjusted to the darkness just well enough to draw out the details of Benjamin’s face.
They’re shut, but he has his mother’s almond eyes.
There is a tactile ache, kneeling here in the dark by the bed of his soon-to-be-six-year-old son in the wake of another day he’s missed completely.
His boy is the most perfect and beautiful thing he’s ever laid eyes on, and he feels, acutely, the inexorable passing of a thousand moments with this little person who will be a man sooner than he can possibly imagine.
He touches Ben’s cheek with the back of his hand.
Leans forward, kisses the boy’s forehead.
Brushes a wisp of hair back behind his ear.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispers. “You can’t even imagine.”
Last year, the morning of the day he died in a nursing home, wasted from age and pneumonia, his father asked Ethan in a raspy voice, “You spend time with your son?”
“Much as I can,” he’d answered, but his father had caught the lie in his eyes.
“It’ll be your loss, Ethan. Day’ll come, when he’s grown and it’s too late, that you’d give a kingdom to go back and spend a single hour with your son as a boy. To hold him. Read a book to him. Throw a ball with a person in whose eyes you can do no wrong. He doesn’t see your failings yet. He looks at you with pure love and it won’t last, so you revel in it while it’s here.”
Ethan thinks often of that conversation, mostly when he’s lying awake in bed at night and everyone else is asleep, and his life screaming past at the speed of light—the weight of bills and the future and his prior failings and all these moments he’s missing—all the lost joy—perched like a boulder on his chest.
“Can you hear me? Ethan?”
Sometimes he feels like he can’t breathe.
Sometimes his thoughts come so fast he has to find one perfect memory.
Cling to it.
A life raft.
“Ethan, I want you to grab hold of my voice and let it bring you to the surface of consciousness.”
Letting it play over and over until the anxiety recedes and the exhaustion comes and he can finally slip under.
“I know it’s hard, but you have to try.”
Into the only portion of his days that anymore affords him peace...
His eyes shot open.
A light bored down into his face—a small, focused point of bright and blinding blue.
He blinked, it disappeared, and when he opened his eyes again, a man peered down at him through gold wire-rimmed glasses, less than a foot away from his face.
Small, black eyes.
A faint silver beard the only indication of age, his skin otherwise smooth and clear.
He smiled—small, perfect white teeth.
“You can hear me now, yes?”
There was formality in the man’s tone. Implied politeness.
“Do you know where you are?”
Ethan had to think for a moment—he’d been dreaming of Seattle, of Theresa and Ben.
“Let’s start with something else. Do you know your name?” the man asked.
“Very good. And again, do you know where you are, Ethan?”
He could feel the answer on the cusp of memory, but there was confusion too, several realities in competition.
In one, he was in Seattle.
In another, a hospital.
In another, an idyllic mountain town called...There was a hole where its name should be.
“If I told you that you were in a hospital in Wayward Pines, would that jog anything loose?”
It didn’t just jog something loose—it brought everything back at once like a hard, sudden hit from a linebacker, the memory of his last four days jarred into working order, into a sequence of events he felt confident he could lean on.
“OK,” Ethan said. “OK. I do remember.”
“I think so.”
“What’s your last recollection?”
It took a moment to retrieve, to brush the cobwebs off the synapses, but he found it.
“I had a terrible headache. I was sitting on the sidewalk of Main Street, and I...”
“You lost consciousness.”
“Do you still have that headache?”
“No, it’s gone.”
“My name is Dr. Jenkins.”
The man shook Ethan’s hand and then took a seat in a chair at Ethan’s bedside.
“You’re what kind of doctor?” Ethan asked.
“A psychiatrist. Ethan, I need you to answer a few questions for me, if that’s all right. You said some interesting things to Dr. Miter and his nurse when they first brought you in. Do you know what I’m referring to?”
“You were talking about a dead body in one of the houses here in town. And that you hadn’t been able to get in touch with your family.”
“I don’t recall speaking with the nurse or doctor.”
“You were delirious at the time. Do you have a history of mental illness, Ethan?”
Ethan had been fully reclined in bed.
Now he struggled to sit up.
Threads of brightness slipped through the drawn blinds.
Day out there.
On some primal level, he felt glad for the fact.
“What kind of question is that?” Ethan asked.
“The kind I get paid to ask. You showed up here last night with no wallet, no ID—”
“I was pulled out of a car accident several days ago, and either the sheriff or the EMTs didn’t do their fucking job, and now I’m stranded here without a phone, money, or ID. I didn’t lose my wallet.”
“Relax, Ethan, nobody’s saying you’ve done anything wrong. Again, I need you to answer my questions. Do you have a history of mental illness?”
“Is there a history of mental illness in your family?”
“Do you have a history of post-traumatic stress disorder?”
“But you did serve in the second Gulf War.”
“How’d you know that?”
Jenkins motioned to his neck.
Ethan glanced down at his chest, saw his dog tag hanging from a ball chain. Strange. He always kept it in his bedside table drawer. Couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn it. Didn’t think he’d brought it along on this trip, and certainly didn’t remember packing it or making the decision to wear it.
He scanned over his name, rank, social security number, blood type, and religious preference (“NO RELIGIOUS PREF”) engraved in the stainless steel.
Chief Warrant Officer Ethan Burke.
“You served in the second Gulf War?”
“Yeah, I flew the UH-60.”
“The Black Hawk helicopter.”
“You saw combat, I assume?”
“You could say that.”
“Were you injured?”
“I don’t understand what this has to do with any—”
“Just answer my questions, please.”
“I was shot down in the second battle of Fallujah in the winter of 2004. It was a medevac mission, and we’d just loaded up some wounded marines.”
“Was anyone killed?”
Ethan took a deep breath in.
If he was honest, the question had surprised him, and now he found himself bracing against a slideshow of images he’d spent a lot of therapy sessions trying to come to
The shockwave as the RPG explodes behind him.
The severed tail section and rotor falling a hundred and fifty feet to the street below.
The sudden g-force as the helicopter spins.
Alarms going mad.
The impossible rigidity of the power stick.
The impact not nearly as bad as he feared.
Consciousness lost only for half a minute.
Seat belt jammed, can’t reach his KA-BAR.
“Ethan. Was anyone killed?”
Insurgent fire already tearing into the other side of the wreckage, someone opening up with an AK.
Through the cracked windshield, two medics limping away from the chopper.
Straight into the four-blade rotor still spinning fast enough...
Blood sheeting down the windshield.
The insurgents coming.
“Everyone was killed except me,” Ethan said.
“You were the sole survivor?”
“Correct. I was captured.”
Jenkins jotted something on a leather-bound notepad. He said, “I need to ask you a few more questions, Ethan. The more honest you are, the better chance I have at helping you, which is all I want to do. Have you been hearing any voices?”