Authors: Blake Crouch
“Little over a year.”
“And I’m not a regular or anything?”
“You’re definitely not a regular.”
“Can I ask you something else?”
“Where is this?”
“You don’t know where you are?”
He hesitated, a part of him not wanting to admit such complete and total helplessness. When he finally shook his head, the barista furrowed her brow like she couldn’t believe the question.
“I’m not messing with you,” he said.
“This is Wayward Pines, Idaho. Your face...what happened to you?”
“I—I don’t really know yet. Is there a hospital in town?” As he asked the question, he felt an ominous current slide through him.
A low-voltage premonition?
Or the fingers of some deep-buried memory drawing a cold finger down his spine?
“Yeah, seven blocks south of here. You should go to the emergency room right now. I could call an ambulance for you.”
“That’s not necessary.” He backed away from the counter. “Thanks...what’s your name?”
The reemergence into sunlight made his balance falter and cranked his budding headache up a few degrees into the lower range of excruciating. There was no traffic, so he jaywalked to the other side of Main and headed up the block toward Fifth Street, passing a young mother and her little boy who whispered something that sounded like, “Mommy, is that him?”
The woman hushed her son and caught the man’s eye with an apologetic frown, said, “I’m sorry about that. He didn’t mean to be rude.”
He arrived at the corner of Fifth and Main in front of a two-story brownstone with
FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF WAYWARD PINES
stenciled across the glass double doors. Around the side of the building, he spotted a phone booth standing near the alleyway.
He limped toward it as fast as he could and closed himself inside the booth.
The phonebook was the slimmest he’d ever seen, and he stood there thumbing through it, hoping for some revelatory breakthrough, but it was just eight pages of several hundred names that, like everything else in this town, held no meaning for him.
He dropped the phonebook, let it dangle from its metal cord, his forehead resting against the cool glass.
The keypad caught his eye.
He smiled at the sweet realization.
I know my home phone number.
Before lifting the receiver, he punched in the number several times just to be sure, and it seemed to flow off his fingertips with the ease of rote knowledge and muscle memory.
He’d call collect, hope to God someone was home—assuming he had a someone. Of course, he wouldn’t have a
name to give them, not a real one at least, but maybe they’d recognize his voice and accept the call.
He picked up the receiver and held it to his ear.
Reached for the zero.
No dial tone.
He tapped the hook several times, but nothing happened.
It surprised him how fast the rage came. He slammed the phone down, an upwelling of fear and anger expanding like a rushed ignition sequence, in search of some out. Cocked his right arm back fully intending to put his fist through the glass, knuckles be damned, but the pain in his busted ribs blazed through everything and doubled him over onto the floor of the phone booth.
Now the throbbing at the base of his skull was surging.
His vision went double, then blurry, then to black...
* * *
The booth was in shade when he opened his eyes again. He grabbed onto the metal cord attached to the phone book and hoisted himself onto his feet. Through the dirty glass, he saw the upper curve of the sun sliding behind that ridge of cliffs that boxed in the western edge of town.
The moment it vanished, the temperature dropped ten degrees.
He still remembered his phone number, practiced it a few times on the keypad just to be safe, and checked the receiver once more for a dial tone—silence save for the faintest crackling of white noise bleeding through the line that he didn’t recall hearing before.
He hung up and lifted the phonebook again. The first time, he’d searched the last names, groping for any word that jogged loose a memory or incited an emotion. Now
he scanned first names, tracing his finger down the list and trying to ignore that pain at the base of his skull that was already creeping back.
The first page—nothing.
Toward the bottom of the sixth page, his finger stopped.
SKOZIE Mack and Jane
403 E 3rd St W Pines 83278..........559-0196
He skimmed the last two pages—Skozie was the only Mack listed in the Wayward Pines phone directory.
Digging his shoulder into the folding glass door, he stepped out of the booth into the early evening. With the sun now below the ring of cliffs, the light was spilling fast out of the sky, and the temperature had begun to fall.
Where will I sleep tonight?
He staggered down the sidewalk, part of him screaming that he should go straight to the hospital. He was sick. Dehydrated. Hungry. Confused. Penniless. His entire body sore. And it was getting more difficult to breathe with this debilitating pain wracking his ribs every time his lungs inflated against them.
But something in him still resisted the idea of going to the hospital, and as he moved away from the downtown and toward the residence of Mack Skozie, he realized what it was.
He didn’t know why. It made no sense. But he didn’t want to set foot inside that hospital.
Not in his present condition. Not ever.
It was the strangest sort of fear. Unspecified. Like walking in the woods at night, not knowing exactly what
you should be afraid of, and the fear all the more potent precisely because of its mystery.
Two blocks north took him to Third Street, his chest inexplicably tightening as he turned onto the sidewalk and headed east, away from the downtown.
The first mailbox he passed had 201 printed on the side.
He figured the Skozie residence should only be two blocks away.
Kids were playing in the grass of a yard just ahead, taking turns running through a sprinkler. He tried to walk upright and steady as he reached their picket fence, but he couldn’t stop himself from favoring his right side to ease the jarring of his ribs.
The children became still and quiet as he drew near, watching him shuffle past with unrestrained stares—a mix of curiosity and distrust that made him uneasy.
He crossed another road, moving slower still up the next block as he passed under the branches of three enormous pines that overhung the street.
The numbers of the colorful Victorians that populated this block all started with a three.
Skozie’s block would be next.
His palms were beginning to sweat and the pulsing in the back of his head sounded like the
of a bass drum buried deep underground.
Two seconds of double vision.
He squeezed his eyes shut tight, and when he opened them again, it had gone away.
At the next intersection, he stopped. His mouth had been dry, but now it turned to cotton. He was struggling to breathe, bile threatening to surge up his throat.
This will all make sense when you see his face.
It has to.
He made a tentative step out into the street.
Evening now, the chill coming off those mountains and settling down into the valley.
Alpenglow had given the rock surrounding Wayward Pines a pinkish tint, the same shade as the darkening sky. He tried to find it beautiful and moving, but the agony prevented this.
An older couple moved away from him, hand in hand, on a quiet stroll.
Otherwise, the street stood empty and silent, and the noise of the downtown had completely faded away.
He moved across the smooth, black asphalt and stepped onto the sidewalk.
The mailbox to 401 was straight ahead.
Number 403 next in line.
He was having to maintain a constant squint now to stave off the double vision and the stabbing throb of his migraine.
Fifteen painful steps, and he stood beside the black mailbox of 403.
He stabilized his balance, holding fast to the sharp ends of the picket fence.
Reaching over, he unlatched the gate and pushed it with the tip of his scuffed, black shoe.
The hinges creaked as it swung open.
The gate banged softly into the fence.
The sidewalk was a patchwork of ancient brick, and it led to a covered front porch with a couple of rocking chairs separated by a small, wrought-iron table. The house itself was purple with green trim, and through the thin curtains, he could see lights on inside.
Just go. You have to know.
He stumbled toward the house.
Double vision shot through in nauseating flashes that he was fighting harder and harder to stop.
He stepped up onto the porch and reached out just in time to stop from falling, bracing himself against the door frame. His hands shook uncontrollably as he grabbed the knocker and lifted it off its brass plate.
He refused himself even a split second to reconsider.
Pounded the knocker four times into the plate.
It felt like someone was punching him in the back of the head every four seconds, and burning patches of darkness had begun to swarm his vision like miniature black holes.
On the other side of the door, he could hear a hardwood floor groaning under the weight of approaching footsteps.
His knees seemed to liquefy.
He hugged one of the posts that supported the porch’s roof for balance.
The wood door swung open, and a man who could’ve been his father’s age stared at him through the screened door. He was tall and thin, with a splash of gray hair on top, a white goatee, and microscopic red veins in his cheeks that suggested a lifetime of heavy drinking.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
He straightened himself up, blinking hard through the migraine. It took everything in his power to stand without support.
“Are you Mack?” He could hear the fear in his voice, figured this man could too.
Hated himself for it.
The older man leaned in toward the screen to get a better look at the stranger on his porch.
“What can I do for you?”
“Are you Mack?”
He edged closer, the older man coming into sharper focus, the sour sweetness of red wine on his breath.
“Do you know me?” he asked.
Now the fear was fermenting into rage.
“Do. You. Know. Me. Did you do this to me?”
The old man said, “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Is that right?” His hands were balling involuntarily into fists. “Is there another Mack in this town?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Mack pushed open the screen door, ventured a step out onto the porch. “Buddy, you don’t look so hot.”
“I don’t feel so hot.”
“What happened to you?”
“You tell me,
A woman’s voice called out from somewhere in the house, “Honey? Everything OK?”
“Yes, Jane, all’s well!” Mack stared at him. “Why don’t you let me take you to the hospital? You’re injured. You need—”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Then why are you at my house?” A gruff edge had entered Mack’s voice. “I just offered to help you. You don’t want that, fine, but...”
Mack was still talking, but his words had begun to dissolve, drowned out by a noise building in the pit of his stomach like the roar of a freight train barreling toward him. The black holes were multiplying, the world beginning to spin. He simply wasn’t going to be able to stay on his feet another five seconds if his head didn’t explode first.
He looked up at Mack, the man’s mouth still moving, that freight train closing in with a vengeance of noise, its rhythm in lockstep with the brutal pounding in his head, and he couldn’t take his eyes off Mack’s mouth, the old man’s
teeth—his synapses sparking, trying to connect, and the noise, God, the noise, and the throbbing—
He didn’t feel his knees give out.
Didn’t even register the backward stumble.
One second he was on the porch.
The next, the grass.
Flat on his back and his head reeling from a hard slam against the ground.
Mack hovering above him now, staring down at him, bent over with his hands on his knees and his words hopelessly lost to the train that was screaming through his head.
He was going to lose consciousness—he could feel it coming, seconds away—and he wanted it, wanted the pain to stop, but...
They were right there.
It made no sense, but there was something about Mack’s mouth. His teeth. He couldn’t stop looking at them, and he didn’t know why, but it was all there.
Answers to everything.
And it occurred to him—stop fighting it.
Stop wanting it so badly.
Just let it come.
The teeth theteeth theteeththeteeththeteethteethteethteeth...
They aren’t teeth.
They’re a bright and shiny grille with the letters
M A C K
stamped across the front.
Stallings, the man beside him in the front passenger seat doesn’t see what’s coming.
In the three-hour ride north out of Boise, it’s become apparent that Stallings adores the sound of his own voice, and he’s doing what he’s been doing the entire time—talking. He stopped listening an hour ago, when he discovered he could tune out completely as long as he interjected an “I hadn’t thought of it that way” or “Hmm, interesting” every five minutes or so.
He’s turned to make just such a token contribution to the conversation when he reads the word
several feet away on the other side of Stallings’s window.
Hasn’t even begun to react—he’s barely read the word—when the window beside Stallings’s head bursts in a shower of glass pebbles.