Release Me (Stark Trilogy, #1)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy, #1) by J. Kenner


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For Lisa, the chief

and

For my mother





I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace.

—ALBERT CAMUS, THE PLAGUE




And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong

For my flesh had turned to fur

Yeah, and my thoughts they surely were

Turned to instinct and obedience to God —BLITZEN TRAPPER, “FURR”





Part I





Chapter 1



HE CANNOT SLEEP. All night, even with his eyes closed, Patrick Gamble can see the red numbers of the clock as they click forward: 2:00, 3:30, 4:10, now 4:30, but he is up before the alarm can blare. He snaps on the light and pulls on the blue jeans and black T-shirt folded in a pile, ready for him, ready for this moment, the one he has been dreading for the past two months. His suitcase yawns open on the floor. He tosses his toiletry kit into it after staggering down the hall to the bathroom and rubbing his armpits with a deodorant stick and brushing his teeth, foaming his mouth full of mint toothpaste.

He stands over the suitcase, waiting, as if hoping hard enough would make his hopes come true, waiting until his raised hopes fall, waiting until he senses his father in the bedroom doorway, turning to look at him when he says, “It’s time.”

He will not cry. His father has taught him that, not to cry, and if he has to, he has to hide it. He zips the suitcase shut and drags it upright and stares at himself in the closet mirror—his jaw stubbled with a few days’ worth of whiskers, his eyes so purple with sleeplessness they look like flowers that have wilted in on themselves—before heading down the hall to the living room, where his father is waiting for him.

The truck idles in the driveway. The air smells like pine and exhaust. Sunlight has started to creep into the night sky, but only a faint glow, a false dawn. The suitcase chews its wheels through the gravel and Patrick struggles two-handed with its weight. When his father tries to help him, Patrick says, “Don’t,” and heaves it up into the bed of the truck.

“Sorry,” his father says, and the word hangs in the air until Patrick slams shut the tailgate. They climb into the truck and on the bench seat Patrick finds a peanut butter toast sandwich wrapped in a paper towel, but his stomach feels like a bruised fist and he can’t imagine choking down more than a bite.

They follow the long gravel drive with their headlights casting twisting shadows through the tunnel of trees. They are alone on a county road, and then surrounded by traffic on I-580, heading south, toward San Francisco. Half the sky full of stars, the rest of it blurred by soot-black clouds occasionally pulsing with gold-wire lightning.

His father says he hopes the weather clears, hopes his flight goes off without a hitch, and Patrick says, yes, he hopes so too.

“You’ve got Neal’s number?”

“Yeah.”

“In case things get weird with your mother?”

“Yeah.”

“Not that I think they will, but in case they do, he’s a three-hour drive away.”

“I know.”

The sky lightens to a plum color—and with the sun and the stars and the clouds at war in the sky, Patrick can’t help but think that’s how things are around here, divided, like the landscape, ocean and forest and desert and city, clouds and sun and fog, like so many worlds crushed into one.

It is another half hour before the sun crests the horizon and injures his eyes to look at. His father holds the steering wheel like it isn’t going where he wants it to go unless he muscles it hard. The two of them say nothing because there is nothing to say. It has all been said. Patrick does not want to go, but that is irrelevant given the fact that he must. That goes for them both. They must.



*



The sky is clotted with clouds. Rain spits. Seagulls screech. The bay is walled off by fog. In the near distance the brown hills are only a hazy presence and the noise of traffic is only a vague growl as cars pour off the freeway and follow narrower roads that branch into parking ramps, rental lots, terminals. One of them, a black sedan with a silver grille, dips underground to the arrivals area at San Francisco International Airport, but it does not stop where the other cars stop, does not pull up to the curb and pop its trunk and click on its hazard lights. Instead it slides past the rest of the traffic, around the corner, to the bend in the road bordered by concrete walls, where it slows enough for the door to open and a man with a briefcase to step out and walk away without a parting word or backward glance.

He is smiling slightly when a minute later he walks beneath the sign that reads TERMINAL. He appears to be a businessman on his way to close a deal. He has the black leather briefcase with the silver snaps. The Nunn Bush wing tips shined to an opal glow. The neatly pressed charcoal suit, starched white shirt, and red tie running down his chest. His hair is severely parted to one side and dusted with gray, the gel darkening it to the color of coal. He looks like hundreds of other men in the airport this morning. His face could be anyone’s face.

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