Children’s laughter—carefree, giddy, maniacal—filled the woods.
A nightmare version of some game from his youth.
Ethan stumbled out into what he figured for a field or meadow—not that he could see a damn thing, but the rain now hammered him with greater intensity, as if he were no longer protected under the forest’s umbrella.
Up ahead, he thought he heard the rush of the river, but then lost it to the sound of hard breathing coming up behind him.
Something crashed into his back—not a particularly jarring blow, but enough to unbalance him for the next.
And the next...
And the next...
And the next...
And the next and then Ethan hit the ground, face jammed in mud, everything drowned out by the laughter of the children, a full-body assault coming from every side, every angle—superficial punches that didn’t stand a chance of hurting him, the sting of shallow cuts, the occasional and far more disconcerting heft of blunt objects striking his head, and all of it, with every passing second, increasing in frequency, like he was being attacked by a school of piranhas.
Something stabbed into his side.
He cried out.
They mocked him.
Another stab—oceanic pain.
His face flushed with rage, and he jerked his left arm out of someone’s grasp, and then his right.
Got his palms on the ground.
Pushed himself up.
Something hard—a rock or a log—thudded into the back of his head hard enough to jog his fillings.
His arms gave out.
Face-first back in the mud.
Someone said, “Hit him in the head!”
But he pushed up again, screaming this time, and it must have taken the children by surprise, because for a split second the blows stopped coming.
It was all the time he needed.
Ethan got his feet underneath him and forced himself up, took a swing at the first face he saw—a tall boy of twelve or thirteen—and knocked him out cold.
“Get back,” he seethed.
There was enough light that for the first time he could actually see what he was dealing with—two dozen children from seven to fifteen years of age encircled him, most holding flashlights and a variety of makeshift weapons—sticks, rocks, steak knives, one with a broom handle with the mop end broken off leaving a jagged splinter of wood.
They looked as if they’d dressed up for Halloween—a ragtag assembly of homemade costumes pieced together from their parents’ wardrobes.
Ethan was almost grateful he’d lost the machete, because he would’ve hacked these little shits into pieces.
There was an opening off to Ethan’s left—a weak link in the circle he might have charged through over two children who stood no taller than his waist.
But then what?
They’d give chase, run him to death in these woods like an injured deer.
Turning slowly, he locked eyes with the most intimidating of the bunch, a post-pubescent, blond-haired boy armed with a tube sock stretched to the max, its pocket weighted with an ominous-looking sphere—perhaps a baseball or a globe of solid glass. The teen wore a suit that must have belonged to his father—several sizes too large, the sleeves hanging down to his fingertips.
Ethan roared, approaching the boy with his right arm cocked back, and he would’ve hit him but the kid backpedaled, tripped, fell, and then ran off into the woods the moment he regained his feet, shouting in full voice that they’d found him.
Half the children, upon seeing their leader turn tail and flee, followed suit.
Those who didn’t, Ethan charged, feeling a bit like an elk trying to scatter a pack of predatory coyotes, but eventually he chased off all but one, the children screaming as they vanished into the pines as if the devil was after them.
The boy who stayed behind watched Ethan through the rain.
He might have been the youngest of the bunch—seven, eight at most.
He’d dressed up like a cowboy—red-and-white hat, boots, string tie, and a Western-style button-down.
He held a flashlight and a rock and stood there with no expression at all.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” Ethan asked.
The boy shook his head, water dripping off the brim of his hat. He looked up at Ethan, and as the flashlight beam illuminated the freckles on his face, Ethan could see that he’d lied. He was afraid, his bottom lip trembling uncontrollably. It was the bravest face the boy could muster, and Ethan couldn’t help but admire him, wondering what had prompted him to make this stand.
“You should quit running, Mr. Burke.”
“How do you know my name?”
“You could have a beautiful life here, and you don’t even see it.”
“What is this place?”
“Just a town,” the boy said.
Adult voices rang out, a new squadron of flashlights twinkling in the pines like emerging stars.
“Where’s your home?” Ethan asked.
The boy tilted his head, puzzled at the question.
“What do you mean?”
“Where’d you live before Wayward Pines?”
“I’ve always lived here.”
“You’ve never left this town?” Ethan asked.
“You can’t leave,” the boy said.
“You just can’t.”
“I don’t accept that.”
“That’s why you’re going to die.” The boy suddenly screamed, “He’s over here! Hurry!”
Lights broke out of the pines into the meadow.
Ethan ran, crashing into the forest on the other side, not even bothering to shield his face or glance back at his pursuers, thrashing through the darkness, losing all sense of time and direction, struggling to keep his head against the chord of absolute panic that threatened to drop him to his knees, curl him up in the fetal position, and finally break his mind.
Because of the fear.
Because of the pain.
Because none of this made a goddamned inkling of sense.
It wasn’t the sound of the river that stopped him but the smell.
A sudden sweetness in the air.
The terrain dropped away and he scrambled down a muddy bank into frigid, raging water, the river pouring into his boots like liquid steel.
Despite the freezing shock of it, he refused to falter, just kept staggering in, away from the bank, deeper and deeper into the current.
The water reached his waist, Ethan gasping as it chilled him to the core, the current fierce, desperate to drag him downstream.