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Read the First Two Chapters of Release!

Okay, we’re just going to come out and say it: you *have* to read RELEASE. In the latest powerhouse YA novel from Patrick Ness, we spend a day with Adam Thorn, a boy whose life, in the span of this single day, will change forever. And maybe after this book, so will yours.

You know those days when it just seems like nothing, and we mean nothing, is going right? Well, Adam is having one of those days. Between the pressures of his religious family, sexual harassment at work, and the heartache of his sort-of ex, his life is pretty much falling apart. But as his world, and walls, break down around him, he realizes that he might just find freedom in the release. There’s also a cool supernatural side plot, NBD.

The entirety of RELEASE is told in one day, and both the writing and story are so emotional and addicting, you won’t be able to put it down.

But you don’t have to take our word for it—read the first two chapters of RELEASE below!

 

Chapter 1

THE YOKE

Adam would have to get the flowers himself. His mom had enough to do, she said; she needed them this morning, pretty much right now if the day wasn’t going to be a total loss; and in the end, Adam’s attendance at this little “get-together” with his friends tonight may or may not hinge on his willingness/success in picking up the flowers and doing so without complaint.

Adam argued—quite well, he thought, without showing any overt anger—that his older brother, Marty, was the one who’d run over the old flowers; that he, Adam, also had a ton of things to do today; and that new chrysanthemums for the front path weren’t exactly high in the logical criteria for attendance at a get-together he’d already bargained for—because nothing was free with his parents, not ever—by chopping all the winter’s firewood before even the end of August. Nevertheless, she had, in that way of hers, turned it into a decree: he would get the flowers or he wouldn’t go tonight, especially after that girl got killed.

“Your choice,” his mom said, not even looking at him. It’s only the Yoke, Adam thought, getting behind the wheel of his car. And the Yoke isn’t forever. Still, he needed a few deep breaths before he started the engine.

At least it was early. The late summer Saturday stretched ahead, with its hours to fill, hours he had filled with a schedule of things (he was a scheduler): he needed to go for a run; he had a few hours’ stock-taking to do at the Evil International Mega-Conglomerate; he had to help his dad at the church; he had to stop by Angela’s work to make sure the pizzas were still on schedule for the party—

Morning, his phone buzzed in his lap.

He smiled in a small way. There was that today, too.

Morning, he typed back. Wanna buy flowers?

Is that code?

He smiled again and backed out of the driveway. Fine, let go of the anger, because what a day ahead! What fun it promised! What laughs! What drinks and food and friends and sex! What a stab in the heart at the end of it because the party was a going-away one! Someone was going away. Adam wasn’t sure whether he wanted them to go away or not.

What a day ahead.

What time are you coming by? asked his phone.

Around 2? he typed back at a stop sign.

The reply was a thumbs-up emoji.

He pulled out of his wooded neighborhood onto the wooded road into town. “Wooded” in fact described everything within fifty miles; it was the overwhelming feature of the town of Frome, indeed the overwhelming feature of the state of Washington. Take it as a given, a sight so often seen it became invisible.

Adam thought about two o’clock this afternoon. There was so much happiness to be had there. So much secret happiness.

And yet, a sinking of the stomach, too . . .

No, stop that. He was looking forward to it. Absolutely. Yes. In fact, think about—

In fact, yes, that.

Another stop sign. Blood is flowing places, he messaged. Engorging things.

The reply was two thumbs-up emojis.

So consider Adam Thorn, as he pulls out onto the farther main road—wooded, naturally—the one that leads to the garden center, the one with ever-increasing traffic, even at this early hour on a Saturday. Adam Thorn, born almost but not quite eighteen years ago in the hospital ten miles along this same road. The farthest from here he’s been in his life is when his family went on a fun-free driving holiday to Mount Rushmore. He didn’t even get to go on the mission trip to Uruguay with his father, mother, and Marty when Adam was in the sixth grade. Afterward, his dad had made it sound like a nightmare of mud and evangelical-resistant locals, but Adam—deemed too young and sentenced to three weeks of four-thirty suppers with Grandpa John and Grandma Pat—couldn’t help but feel that wasn’t the point.

Twelve more months, he thought, and the Yoke is off. Senior year started in just over a week.

After that, the sky.

For Adam Thorn wants to get away. Adam Thorn longs to leave, with an ache in his gut so acute it feels like vertigo. Adam Thorn wishes he was going away with the person going away at the end of tonight’s going-away party.

Well, maybe he does.

Adam Thorn. Blanched blond, tall, bulky in a way that might be handsome but is only just starting to properly agree with gravity. A-student, fighting for the college of his choice, fighting for college at all as the money troubles that are supposed to be passing don’t seem to be doing so, not helped by pointless purchases of chrysanthemums because “preachers’ houses have to look a certain way,” but he is focused on a goal, focused on what will get him the hell out of Frome, Washington.

Adam Thorn, keeper of secrets.

His phone rang as he pulled into the garden center.

“Everyone’s up early today,” he answered as he parked.

“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not everyone?” Angela grumped.

“Everyone is everyone. Whole point of ‘everyone.’”

“The whole point of everyone is for them to constantly do stupid things while we—not everyone—make fun of them for it and feel superior.”

“Why are you up?”

“Why else? The chickens.”

“The chickens are every reason for everything. They’ll rule us one day.”

“They rule us now. Why are you up?”

“Replacement flowers. For my mom’s garden of punishment.”

“You are so going to need therapy.”

“They don’t believe in it. If you can’t pray it away, it’s not a real problem.”

“Your parents. I’m amazed they’re letting you go tonight. Especially after Katherine van Leuwen.”

Katherine van Leuwen was the girl who was killed, which seemed impossible with a name so strong. She’d gone to Adam’s school, a year ahead, but he didn’t know her. And okay, so, fine, she had been murdered last week at the same lake where the get-together was planned (Adam had never used the word “party” with his parents as that would have closed discussion immediately), but the girl’s killer, her much older boyfriend, had been caught, had confessed, and was awaiting sentencing. She had always hung out with the meth heads and it was meth her boyfriend was amped up on when he killed her, raving about—of all things—goats, according to an equally methed witness. Angela, Adam’s closest friend, raged against anyone’s even slight suggestion that Katherine van Leuwen had brought it on herself.

“You don’t know,” she’d nearly shout at whoever. “You don’t know what her life was like, you don’t know what addiction is like. You have no idea what goes on inside another person’s head.”

That was certainly true, and thank God for that, in the case of Adam’s parents.

“They think it’s a quote get-together with three or four of my friends to say good-bye to Enzo,” he said now.

“That sentence is factually true.”

“While at the same time omitting much.”

“Also true. When pizzas? Because, pizzas.”

“I’ve got a run to do, then work, then I’m seeing Linus at two, and I have to help my dad set up for church tomorrow–”

“Dad and church post-coitus with Linus? You dirty boy.”

“I was thinking seven? Then we could go straight to the party.”

“Get-together.”

“There will be together to get, yes.”

“Seven. Good. I need to speak to you.”

“About what?”

“Stuff. Don’t worry. And now chickens. Because, chickens.”

Angela’s family had a working farm. She swore they’d adopted her from Korea because it was cheaper than hiring a laborer for the livestock. This wasn’t true, even Angela knew it; Mr. and Mrs. Darlington were unobtrusively decent, always good to Adam, always giving him an implicitly safe place to get away from those parents of his, even if they were too kind to say such a thing out loud.

“When is it that you’ve got my back again, Adam?” Angela asked, in their usual farewell.

He grinned. “Always. Until the end of the world.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” She hung up.

He got out of his car into the early morning sunshine. The lot was nearly full at a little past eight. Serious gardeners around here, getting ready for the approaching fall. He stopped a minute under the sky, only cleared of trees for the parking lot but still: open sky. He closed his eyes, felt the sun on his eyelids.

He breathed.

The Yoke wasn’t even his word. It was Biblical. It was his dad’s. Big Brian Thorn. Former professional football player—three seasons as a tight end for the Seahawks before the shoulder surgery—now longtime head preacher at The House Upon The Rock, Frome’s second-largest evangelical church. “Until you leave my house,” he’d bellowed right into Adam’s face, “you are under my Yoke.” Adam’s car had been taken away for a month that time. For missing curfew by ten minutes.

He breathed again, then went inside for chrysanthemums.

JD McLaren was working the flower department. They had world literature and chemistry together. “Hey, Adam,” he said, with his usual plump friendliness.

“Hey, JD,” Adam said. “I didn’t even know you guys opened this early.”

“They saw how many people were lined up at the drivethru Starbucks at five every morning and thought there was business they were missing out on.”

“They’re probably right. I need chrysanthemums.”

“Bulbs? Wrong time of year to plant those.”

“I need the full, blooming flowers. My brother flattened the ones bordering our driveway. My mother had a stroke.”

“Oh, my God!”

“She didn’t really have a stroke, JD.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“But I need to procure them or be denied social occasions.”

“You mean Enzo’s thing tonight?”

“I do. You going?”

“Yeah. I heard there’s going to be kegs because his parents are European and don’t care if we drink.”

“Angela and I are bringing pizzas from her work.”

“Better and better. Does it matter what color chrysanthemums?”

“Probably, but as she didn’t specify, I have the chance to blame her if they’re wrong.”

“I’ll get you the most garish.”

“And maybe . . .”

JD waited. Adam couldn’t quite meet his eye. “Maybe not the most expensive?”

“Not a problem, Adam,” JD said, seriously, and headed off into the massive field of flower pallets. Those were all in dirt, to be planted into your own gardens, but the garden center had a cooler of cut flowers, too, if you needed a bouquet. Adam wandered over to it, his brain idly moving through the day ahead, coupled with a song he was presently unaware of even humming.

A red rose, alone in its plastic bucket. He reached for it, though it didn’t really register in his consciousness until it was in his hands. A single red rose. Could he buy it? Was that something that was okay? That boys did?

If it was for a girl, obviously, yes, but if it was for . . .

He had no rules for this. Which was liberating some of the time because that meant there were none to obey, not even with Linus. But sometimes a guide or history or a long established literature would have been useful. Could he buy a rose? And give it? How would Linus take it? Did everyone else in the world know the answer except him?

If it was even Linus he gave it to.

He placed the pad of his right thumb onto one of the rose’s thorns—which, along with “crown of,” was one of the two “jokes” people told about his last name, never making anyone laugh but themselves—and slowly but firmly pressed. It pierced the skin and in the quickness of the drop of blood that flowed there, he saw—

an entire world, fast as a gasped breath, of trees and green, of water and woods, of a figure that followed in the darkness, of mistakes made, of loss, of grief

Adam blinked and put his bloody thumb to his lips. It was gone. Like a dream. Like vapor. Leaving behind only a feeling of disquiet and the tang of blood on his tongue.

When JD returned, Adam bought the rose. It was only two bucks.

She wakes, suddenly, to the smell of blood, of roses, as if her heart has been pricked by a thorn. She is drenched. Has she walked up from the water’s edge? Has she stepped out of the water itself?

She doesn’t know. There was flurry, there was rush, there was release—

And then a snag, as if on that thorn in her heart, a drop of blood pearling itself . . .

She sits up and the water pours off her like she passed through a waterfall seconds before. But the shore is dry, as shores go, the mud beneath her damp but firm. She runs her palm over it, like she is mystified by it, and maybe she is. It is coarse under her fingertips. She pinches a bit between her thumb and index finger, bringing it to her nose, inhaling deeply. Rich, peaty, the smell of earth, but not the source of the blood scent.

But then why would it be? she thinks, of a sudden. She is surrounded by wild rosebushes, she knows this, she doesn’t know how, but she does. She is surrounded by thorns—

And the scent shimmers away, like a voice heard before waking.

She stands, still dripping into the newly formed puddle at her feet. This dress is hers, she thinks. This dress is not hers, she thinks. The contradiction is true. It is patterned floral, light, tasteful, a young woman’s dress but either ironically retro or actually from another time.

Do I wear dresses? she thinks.

Yes. No.

There are pockets in the dress, which would seem to mark it out as very old-fashioned, but they’re distended, stretched, heavy. She reaches for the weight inside each and pulls out two solid bricks, dense enough to drag her down.

To drown her.

She stares at them for the longest while.

She drops the bricks. They each bounce once on the mud.

“Death is not the end,” she speaks aloud.

What? What was that? What does that even mean? She puts a hand over her mouth as if to keep it from speaking again, holding the words in.

A song. It’s a song. She feels the tune humming itself in her diaphragm, a melody emerging, words that she knows. A song for funerals, gravesides. Or perhaps one only written to sound so, perhaps done with the same irony that wove this dress.

She closes her eyes against the sun breaking in the trees. She sees the veins and capillaries on the insides of her eyelids, red as murder.

She breathes.

Then she vomits up more water than her stomach could possibly contain. It is only water, no bile or food, clear in the cataract that rushes from her mouth. She eventually has to kneel from the force of it, until the overwhelmed puddle beneath her opens a channel to the lake.

Finally, there is no more. She pants, gathering herself. When she stands again, her hair, her skin, her dress, are all dry, not a hint of dampness anywhere.

She breathes once again.

“I will find you,” she says, and on bare feet, she begins to walk.

Behind the rosebushes, the faun watches her go. After a moment, he follows, worried.

 

Chapter 2

RUN

It took at least a mile, sometimes two, before Adam properly relaxed into his run. “Maybe distance running isn’t for you,” his cross-country coach had said, at first gently, then not, then eventually giving up when Adam kept coming to practice and completing all his runs. He’d never won a single race—the team had never won a single meet—and Adam’s awkward first ten minutes were undoubtedly part of that, but . . .

Once he warmed up, once the tension was gone, once the sweat had properly broken and his breathing was rhythmically heavy and every twinge of stiffness and pain from previous workouts had been obliterated by adrenaline and endorphins, when all of that had happened, there was almost nowhere on earth he’d rather be, even on up-and-down back roads with no shoulder or, as now, on the old railroad path too crowded with entitled cyclists or groups of powerwalking moms in their pastel tops and self-crimped hair.

For forty-five minutes, or an hour, or an hour and a half, the world was his, and he was alone in it. Blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone.

Which was good, because the chrysanthemums had gone down badly.

“Did you purposely get the colors of vomit?” his mother asked.

“That’s all they had.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure that’s what you want to say? When I can very easily go down there and check myself?”

He kept his voice level and repeated, “That’s all they had.”

She relented, grudgingly. “I suppose it is late in the season. But couldn’t you have tried another flower? One that looks less like . . . bodily functions?”

“You asked for chrysanthemums. If I’d gotten anything else, you’d be sending me back there right now and then both of us would have wasted our mornings.”

Not to mention money we don’t have on flowers when I haven’t had a new winter coat in three years, he did not add.

She had waited a moment, then picked up the pallet and took it out front without a word of thank you. Moments later, when he’d changed into his running gear and sprinted past her to start his workout, she was already arm-deep in topsoil at the side of the driveway. She called something out to him, but he had his earbuds turned up loud and was pretty sure he hadn’t heard her.

His parents. They hadn’t always been this angry/wary/ scared of him. His childhood had been all right, even filled with talk of “blessings” after four years of effort to have a second child had been so literally fruitless they had just given up. As was often the way with these things, Adam was born eight months later.

My Baby, she’d called him. For too long. For too many years. Until it stopped being a phrase of love and started to contain within it an iron weight of instruction. You will never be our equal, they seemed to be telling him, no matter how old you get. Especially when all his little friends growing up were girls. Especially when he never watched the Super Bowl but never missed the Oscars. Especially when he started to seem “a bit gay.”

She’d actually said that in front of him at a Wendy’s one Sunday night after church. “Do you think he might be a bit gay?” she’d asked across the table to his father, as fifteen year- old Marty looked furiously into his chocolate Frosty and eleven-year-old Adam’s face stung as keenly as a slapped sunburn.

All he had done was mention how fun the dance classes sounded that the son of his sixth-grade teacher was taking.

“No,” his father said to his mother too quickly, too firmly.

“And don’t talk like that. Of course he isn’t.” With his eye on Adam, making clear this was only partly belief and mostly command and 100 percent denial of any dance classes.

The subject hadn’t come up again, not once, in the intervening six years.

Nobody here was a fool. Not Adam, who had mastered clever internet searching before his parents knew what a Wi-Fi child lock even was. And his mom and dad were both educated people, not even a little bit blind to what the world was like, how it had changed even in Adam’s lifetime. But sometimes it felt like change only happened in far-off cities and was having too much fun there to make it out to the suburbs, where the benefit of his parents’ education was merely that they smiled and kept mostly quiet about their certainties rather than discarding them.

His father was an evangelical minister, after all. With Adam as a son. Particular denials of reality were going to be necessary for anyone in that house.

So no one talked about it, but there had been curfew and sleepover restrictions that Marty hadn’t suffered, first in Adam’s friendship with Enzo, and only less in his friendship with Linus because they barely knew Linus existed, Angela covering for him to an extent he’d never be able to repay. Church, twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday, was mandatory, of course, and his regular trips to Christian summer camp were more strictly enforced than Marty’s, too—though Marty had been only too happy to go. Even Adam’s joining of drama club at school was not so subtly resisted until he told them he was also joining the cross-country team.

He crossed mile four at the end of the old railroad path, having to turn sideways to get past five moms pushing five strollers side by side. It was usually at this point in the run that he was no longer arguing with anyone in his head. Oh, well.

Angela loved her parents. They were the kind of family that laughed together over dinner. She hadn’t had a curfew since fourteen because they trusted her not to get in any trouble. When she’d lost her “full” virginity, as she called it, the experience hadn’t been what Angela was expecting, and she and her mom had actually talked it over afterward (though not before Adam and Angela had thoroughly debriefed first).

Adam imagined the look on his dad’s face if he’d gone to him the first time after full penetration with Enzo. An elderly man on what appeared to be a homemade bicycle looked up and grinned at Adam’s passing laugh.

Adam turned down the path that ran along a stretch of lakefront, across a side bay from where Enzo’s party would be tonight. He had only been planning to run six miles, especially with the chrysanthemum delay, but felt like he needed to make it eight, needed to push that little bit farther. He had reached the point, that rare point that sometimes happened in a run, where he felt aware of his youth, aware of his strength, aware of the temporary immortality granted in these moments of fullest physical exertion. He could run these last four miles forever. He would run them forever.

He heard the car horn honking before he was a hundred feet along the path but assumed it couldn’t possibly be for him.

His parents had never really liked Enzo but couldn’t bring themselves to say so outright. Enzo—Lorenzo Emiliano Garcia—was from Spain. He’d been born there, though he had no memory of it, his parents having found their way to America shortly after his birth and then to the nearly rural commuter town of Frome just before the eighth grade. He had no accent but had a European passport. Actually, having a passport even without the adjective was impressively strange on its own. But it wasn’t that he was moving back to Spain after tonight. His mother, an endocrinologist, had taken a job all the way across the country, in Atlanta. Adam’s parents were really only letting him go to the get-together out of relief at Enzo vanishing as an influence in their son’s life.

The hilarious thing was that it had nothing to do with all the physical stuff they’d shared, all the sex and love (Could Adam call it that? Did Enzo? Did he, though?), the intimacy and closeness. If his parents had genuinely suspected any of that, he would have been packed off to ex-gay camp faster than a mosquito’s blink.

No, they objected because Enzo was Catholic.

He laughed to himself again as he ran. The endorphins were really cooking now.

“Have you been a witness to this boy?” his father would ask. “It’s what the Lord wants of us. What He demands of us.”

“They go to church every Sunday, Dad. I think they’ve probably got a Lord of their own.”

“Don’t blaspheme.”

“How is that–”

“You can talk him away from the lie of the papacy.”

“That’s probably what I should start with, huh?”

“Dang it, Adam! All this, this, this charisma you have. All this drive–”

“You think I have charisma?” Adam was genuinely astonished.

“You’re not like Martin.” It sounded like a painful admission. It almost certainly was. “Your brother . . . has different blessings, but he’s never going to be as effective with words as you.” His dad shook his head. “I prayed for a preacher as a son, and God, in His infinite humor, gave me one with all of the faith but none of the talent and another with all of the talent but none of the faith.”

“That’s a little hard on Marty, don’t you–”

“Just be a witness to this boy, son.” Adam was astonished (again) to see what seemed to be tears in his father’s eyes.

“You could be so effective. So, so effective.”

Well, Adam had thought to himself, I’ve had my mouth on his bare skin. That seemed to be effective.

He didn’t say that, though.

Mostly, he was confused by the conversation. Not his dad’s evangelizing, of course, but that it was the first time in a long time, too long, that his dad had expressed any hope in him. They’d seemed to decide he was the Prodigal Son in waiting and were happy to let that story play out.

Even the endorphins as he crossed mile five weren’t enough to make this feel joyous. He pushed himself, ran harder.

He had loved Enzo. Loved him. And who cared if it was the love of a fifteen- and then a sixteen-year-old. Why did that make it any less? They were older than those two idiots in Romeo and Juliet. Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening. The truth was always now, even if you were young. Especially if you were young.

He had loved Enzo.

And then Enzo, for reasons Adam could—still—not quite understand, had stopped loving Adam. They became “friends,” though how that was supposed to work, Adam also still didn’t know. He’d witnessed to Enzo with his love. If he was as charismatically effective as his father seemed to believe, why hadn’t that been enough to make Enzo love him back?

“Shit,” he said, stopping on the lake path, putting his hands on his knees and just panting—

“Shit,” she hears as she continues through the trees away from the lake, and there it is again, the same pricking on her heart.

A part of her wants to move toward the sound, feels the pull of something, perhaps as simple as the warmth of another human, and so she goes, three, four, five steps deeper into the trees—

But the warmth is moving again, away from her.

She’s not worried. If it’s who she is looking for, she will find him.

Of this—and maybe this alone—she is certain.

—the sweat quickly dripping from his nose in three, four, five black circles on the path’s pavement. It had been months since it ended with Enzo, months spent happily with Linus, how ridiculously lucky was that, approaching the twelfth grade of a public high school in the sub-sub-suburbs? And they were good months, months full of laughter and tenderness.

So why did it still ache?

“You okay, son?” The old man on the homemade bicycle had caught up to him.

Adam popped out an earbud. “Just a broken heart.”

“My advice?” The old man didn’t stop, just kept slowly pedaling by. “Whiskey. And lots of it.”

Adam laughed in a single syllable, shaking his head as he took off running again.

He was at the point—he checked his phone—just over thirty-five minutes in, where nothing hurt. His legs were in rhythm, his feet hitting their strike at the right cadence, his arms swinging their counterweight.

I feel strong, he thought, almost consciously. I feel strong. He ran a little faster.

Still, his parents loved him. They must. In their own way. But that way seemed to depend on an unspoken set of rules Adam was expected to know and abide by; and to be fair, he probably did know them. It was abidance that was a problem.

He had loved, though. And been loved himself. That he was sure of, even if it was Angela. Plus, she was the one who told him he was in love with Enzo (and, in fact, was the one who told Enzo that, too). He’d given his feelings for boys a name not long before then, had even already somehow lost his virginity (though that was another story), so it certainly wasn’t just being oblivious, though Angela had proved strangely vehement about naming anything.

“Let’s say I want to kiss Shelley Morgan,” she’d said. Adam had looked over from the throw pillows they were sharing on the floor of her family’s TV room. “You do?”

“Well, kind of. I mean, who doesn’t? She’s part vampire, part baby marmot.”

“And that does it for you?”

“It does it for most people who aren’t you. Now, shut up, I’m making a point: I’d also be interested in kissing Kurt Miller.”

“Ugh, you already have, though. And all that peach fuzz.”

“Really? I find it endearing. But say I want to kiss both Shelley and Kurt and I want to do this on the same day. What would that make me?”

“Hungry?”

“No, you’re supposed to say ‘bi’ and I’m supposed to yell at you. Or you were supposed to say ‘slut’ and I’d really yell at you.”

They waited a moment while a handsome-but-stupidand- very-waxed frat jock got flayed by the hillbilly zombie in the movie they’d downloaded. One of the many things Adam and Angela bonded over was a shared hatred of drippy teen movies. Horror all the way.

“Sick,” Angela said, eating a Dorito.

“But wouldn’t that make you bi, though?”

“Oh, my God, no, you label fascist!”

“There it is.”

“My point: why do you have to call yourself anything? Because, if you don’t, freedom. Because, self-actualization. Because, fluidity and not calcifying into what that label will make you.”

“How about, because having an identity can be just as powerful as actualizing my fluidity?”

“But are you sure you only like boys? Why not keep your options open?”

“Because my entire upbringing has told me there was only one way to be. That any other way is wrong. A deviation from their certainty.”

“All the more reason to–”

“I’m not finished. When I realized how things were, when I said to myself that I am not this thing I’ve been told I have to be, that I am this other thing instead, then Jesus, Ange, the label didn’t feel like a prison, it felt like a whole new freaking map, one that was my own, and now I can take any journey I want to take and it’s possible I might even find a home there. It’s not a reduction. It’s a key.”

Angela ate another Dorito, thoughtfully. “Okay,” she said. “I can see that.”

“And if I felt anything like that for a girl, don’t you think it would only ever be you?”

“Oh, fuck off, Disney Channel, you’re way too tall for me.” But she scooted across the Darlingtons’ shag carpet and put her head on his shoulder. She stared at the screen for a minute while a topless blonde was beheaded. “I think I want to kiss Shelley more than Kurt, though.”

“Whatever, I promise never to call you anything until you tell me to.”

“And I promise not to care about your small-minded label because you insist it’s liberating.”

“Good.” He kissed the top of her head.

“Now, when are you going to get into Enzo Garcia’s pants already?”

“Enzo?” He’d been genuinely surprised. And then, suddenly, not. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, yeah.”

And that was how, not three weeks later, at Angela’s sixteenth birthday party (she was four months older and surprisingly gracious about not lording it over him), the only other guests besides Adam were a pleasantly surprised Enzo and a slightly baffled but really quite sweet Shelley Morgan.

“Here’s how it is,” Angela said in a low voice to Adam and Enzo after her parents had dropped them off at the bowling alley. “I’m going to spend this whole evening seeing how well worth getting to know better Shelley is, and you two need to leave us to it. Fortunately, Enzo, Adam is totally in love with you, so you’ll have lots to talk about.”

She’d left them to their stunned silence, Adam realizing too late that he should have been laughing it off immediately.

He hadn’t. Enzo noticed. At the end of the night, they kissed in a shadow outside. Enzo tasted of pretzels and warm, his lips as soft as a sleepy puppy. Adam had almost been literally dazed, like he’d never been so thirsty.

Angela ended up kissing Shelley Morgan, too, but said that she had smelled of grape. “It was like kissing a Care Bear.”

That had started Enzo and Adam, though. All seventeen months, one week, and three days of it.

Adam passed six miles where the path on the lakeside started a long curve back into the woods. His music still blasted in his ears, but it all somehow felt silent back here. The path was empty, the lake steadily disappearing behind thickening trees. His breath pulled one pattern over the slightly different one of his feet. He passed into some shadow and the sudden coolness made him realize how wet with sweat he was, his shirt soaked all the way down to the hem.

He checked his phone again. No wonder. The running app showed he was at top pace. One that, if he’d been able to keep it up over all these distances rather than so late into them, might have made him a competitive cross-country runner after all.

Maybe Angela’s joke, if that’s what it was, had been the problem with Enzo in the end. She was trying to be helpful, assuming Enzo was just as interested in Adam, but if he wasn’t, she had effectively handed over all of Adam’s power in one simple sentence.

“Do you really love me?” Enzo had asked, just before they kissed, a smile half disbelieving, half intrigued across that beautifully handsome face of his. And why not? It was so much easier to be loved than to have to do any of the desperate work of loving.

A square slab of gray concrete abruptly ends the tree line. She almost falls into the empty air, as if a wall has been removed.

She stands, astonished.

I am here.

There are cuts on her feet from her walk through the forest. The ground was littered not only with the green detritus of a mature woodland but the garbage of humans. Broken glass, a rusted shopping cart, so very much plastic in a limitless array of colors, all of them ugly, and in one small clearing, a bed of used hypodermic needles that stabbed her feet as she walked over them, bite after bite, until she looked as if she’d been attacked by a porcupine.

Though she does not bleed. And the pain is so distant as to be in another room.

Ahead of her now, across the square of concrete, stands a closed-down convenience store, fading to dereliction.

I have thirst, she thinks.

“I have thirst,” she says aloud.

“You won’t find any help there, little lady,” a voice answers.

A man. His clothes, his skin, his hair, all the color of camouflaging dust, hiding him as he sits in the shadow of an elderly dumpster along the side of the building.

She tries to answer, tries to ask him what he means, but her mouth struggles and all she is able to say is, “I have thirst” again, frowning at the effort.

The man leans out of the shadows to get a better look at her. His face is a mask of beard and sun-damaged wrinkles, but the concern there is plain. “Are you coming down off something?” His voice changes, as if he is talking to himself. “Probably meth, yeah, probably meth, all those labs out there in the trees, but the face, the face, meth melts your face, and that face ain’t melted, that face is the sun on water, man, the sun on water, the sun on the water.” He speaks up again. “Do you need a doctor?”

The word “meth” has turned a queer screw in her belly, a cold one, a fearful one, and words again come up from inside, floating like a choke of feathers, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t—

“I don’t,” she says.

“I look at her,” the man says, “and I don’t know if this is the truth she speaks, if these words are even the answer to my question, and the sun that hits my face is not, it is not,  the same sun that hits her face, a sun cast through water, a sun dappled, moving, breathing.”

He stands, then seems surprised to find himself standing. His voice reaches out once more. “You have nothing to fear from me.” He stretches back into the shadow and picks up a black can, already opened. “I can help you with your thirst, though to be honest, you probably shouldn’t drink too much. Not in this heat. Not with the sun shining on you like that.”

He steps toward her. “Here, my lady, I don’t expect you to come to me. You can’t expect her to do that. You’ll have to go to her. You will. You must. But will she harm you?”

“I will not,” she says, discovering it is true as she says it.

The man crosses the gray concrete, his gait stiff, painful, but steady. He stops slightly more than arm’s length from her. He holds out the can, straining to reach her, as if he can come no closer.

She steps to him instead, taking the offering hand in both of hers, steadying it. He gasps, astonished at the physical contact. She can smell him now, a smudge of unwashed skin, poverty, extreme loneliness. She takes the can, still holding his hand, unrolling it, running a finger across its weathered palm.

“This hand,” she says. “This hand killed me.”

“Not this hand.”

“A hand like it.”

“All hands are alike. As alike as they are different.”

She releases his palm, finds herself still holding the can, a remarkable odor of yeast pressing from it, almost alive.

She drinks. The taste is a railroad train, the boom of a timpani, a lighthouse through fog. She laughs aloud, the foam running down her chin.

“God, I hated this stuff,” she says, in a voice that is entirely hers and entirely someone else’s. It shocks her into silence.

I have never drunk this before, she thinks.

I have drunk this before and hated it, she thinks.

“Both are true,” she says.

“They always are,” the man says.

“Tell me. How many of me do you see?”

“I’ll see as many of you as you wish.”

She wonders if he speaks true, if he will be able to answer the questions that hover here, just above and behind her, a flock of watchful birds, waiting for her to stumble. How is she here? Where is she going? What is this thorn in her heart and what does it bind there?

But no. He is troubled by his state, she can see that now. He is a damaged human, as so many of them are (them? She thinks), and he struggles through the best he can manage. She can’t even feel disappointment, only pity.

“Thank you,” she says, handing him back the can with a deep seriousness.

“She gives it back to you,” the man says. “She turns the sun to you and she thanks you.”

“I do.”

“She thanks you.”

The man watches as she crosses the square of concrete, wading out toward an unbusy road, an intent seriousness seeming to drive her, one that ignores the broken ground punishing her feet.

“She leaves,” he says, drinking from the can.

He keeps the same unsurprised expression when the faun steps onto the square of concrete, hooves clopping like a prim donkey’s. He is seven feet tall, furred to his haunches, horned of head, bare of chest, naked as a wild creature, his priapic goat smell clearing the man’s nostrils as effectively as any menthol. He reaches for the man.

“It’s touching your eyes,” the man says. “It’s a dream, this. It can only be. It offers you forgetfulness and the forgetfulness is sweet.”

The faun leaves the man standing there, in a euphoria that will be the only thing he’ll remember of this encounter. The faun hurries after her, glancing up at the now midmorning sun. The day is long, but it is not endless.

He has until dusk. He has only until dusk.

Adam crossed the seven-mile mark as he finished the little segment of lakeside path. One mile from home, unless he wanted to turn left and add another four. But all that was out that way was a closed 7-Eleven and probably half the meth labs in the county. He might have, regardless, and had done so on his very best running days (and his very worst), but today he had no time.

He turned right instead, running through the parking lot at the end of the trail, noticed his brother’s truck there, his brother behind the wheel.

“Adam!” Marty shouted, loud enough to be heard over Adam’s playlist.

“Not stopping!” he yelled back. He turned onto a back country road—shoulderless, of course, it was an ongoing miracle that he’d never been knocked into a ditch—and kept at full pace. Halfway down this road, he’d pass the western fence of Angela’s farm. You couldn’t see her house from there, but her horse and its companion goat might be grazing.

“Hey, bro,” his bro said, pulling alongside in the truck, keeping pace, waiting for Adam to turn down his music. “I honked for you when you started on the lakeside. Guess you must not have heard me.”

“Sure.”

“Get in. I want to talk to you.”

“No. And I thought you were helping Dad.”

“Yeah, well.” Marty’s voice had a surprising hitch in it, enough to make Adam look over, but not enough to make him stop.

His golden brother. Hair so blond it was almost white, facial hair that faded to lighter blond rather than the usual ginger, a strapping set of shoulders, a smile that would normally have made him the world’s most successful youth pastor, if—and this was his father’s point about effectiveness—Marty hadn’t been the most boring Sunday School teacher Adam had ever had. If the rumors were true, Marty had also matured into the most boring preacher in his entire seminary.

When you were that handsome, everyone assumed you could work an audience, so often that no one ever actually bothered showing you how. Physical beauty, of all the curses, was obviously the best you could get. It was still a curse, though.

“He wasn’t happy with the suggestions I made for his sermon tomorrow,” Marty said, puttering alongside Adam.

“The words ‘grade-school hokum’ were used.”

“Dad’s from Oregon. Why does he talk like an Appalachian hick?”

“They call it ‘folksiness’ in seminary.”

“I’m on the home stretch, Marty. I really need to concentrate–”

“Get in. I’ll drive you.”

“And again, no.” He kept moving. Marty kept pace, watching out for traffic behind them. The road was deserted, which was why Adam used it.

Marty was starting his senior year in a couple of weeks, too, at a church college in rural Idaho, one that was training him to preach and to minister, with an eye to being taken on at The House Upon The Rock and maybe, one day, being the second-generation Thorn as head pastor. This was something Marty wanted very badly, despite what was slowly being confirmed as his complete unsuitability to do so.

“Listen, bro–”

Adam finally stopped. “I’m in the middle of something, Marty! I mean, seriously, have you gone blind or has seminary just made you so sure you’re the important one that no one else’s lives matter?”

“Whoa, where’s all this coming from?”

“What do you want?” Adam was aware of Angela’s horse and its companion goat behind him over the fence, coming closer, chewing their grass, interested in the gossip.

Marty didn’t answer him at first, just sat there, his truck idling. “It’d be easier if you got in–”

“Marty–”

“I’m going to be a father.”

Adam blinked. So did the horse and the companion goat. The sentence was so incongruous that at first Adam misunderstood. “You’re becoming Catholic?”

Marty looked startled, then rolled his eyes. “Not that kind of father.”

Adam stepped closer to the open passenger-side window of the truck. “You mean . . . ?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you shitting me?”

Marty closed his eyes. “I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t swear–”

“You got Katya pregnant?”

Katya was Marty’s longtime girlfriend. Beautiful, Belarusian, teensy bit racist about the Jews, if we’re being honest. She—through some impossibly convoluted chain of patronage and government sponsorship—had somehow ended up studying engineering at the same rural Christian college as Marty. As likely the two prettiest people on campus, possibly in all of Idaho, their coupling had an inevitability to it. When Katya visited, she brought her own scales to weigh her portions of food. Adam’s parents were terrified of her.

Adam saw his brother swallow. “Not Katya,” Marty said.

“Not . . .” Adam put his hands on the window ledge.

“Oh, Marty. What have you done?”

Marty took out his phone, swiped a few times, and brought up a picture. A very pretty (of course) black girl looked off-screen, laughing, holding a blue plastic disposable cup, the kind you got at parties (not get-togethers). She was Marty’s age and wearing a sweatshirt of the church college. Marty had never mentioned her before in his life.

“Her name’s Felice,” he said, smiling to himself. “It means happy.”

“Well,” Adam deadpanned, “that makes everything okay then. What’s her sign?”

Marty’s blond eyebrows started a conversation with themselves. “Leo? I think? Why on earth–”

“Marty! How the hell could you get her pregnant? Are you a complete idiot about contraception? Is she?”

“The school frowns on it,” Marty said, frowning on it.

“More than pregnancy?”

“We never meant to go that far–”

“Wait a minute.” Adam was quickly losing his running heart rate. His muscle tissue would already be swelling for post-run healing. He was basically going to cool off into a golem if he didn’t start running again very soon. “Why are you telling me? Why did you track me down on a run to–” His eyes narrowed. “You haven’t told Mom and Dad.”

Marty at least had the grace to look sheepish. “I had to tell somebody.”

Adam exhaled. “She’s going to have it, of course.”

“Of course! Abortion is out of the–”

“For her or for you?”

“For both of us!”

“Sometimes it’s the wisest course of action, bro.”

Marty shook his head, disappointed. “Dad’s right about you. You got lost on your journey somewhere.”

“That’s what everyone says who never bothered to go on a journey in the first place. And”—he halted his brother’s apology, which he could already see coming—“we can take comfort in the fact that Dad was completely wrong about you.”

They were quiet for a minute, the road still deserted, only the idling of the truck engine cutting across the dew-filled morning. The horse and the goat still stood and chewed, blamelessly curious. Adam ran his hand through his sweatslicked hair.

“Are you going to marry her?”

Marty nodded. “She only found out yesterday and called me.” He grinned. “I proposed immediately.”

“Over the phone?”

“She’s talking to her folks in Denver right now. I’m telling Mom and Dad this weekend. If we both survive, we’re going to get married as soon as senior year starts. The university has special housing for married undergrads.”

“Where? 1952?”

Marty laughed, gently. He always laughed gently. “What do you want from me?” Adam asked. “Congratulations? You got ’em. Based on the thirty seconds I’ve known about her existence and the one photo you’ve shown me, I’m thrilled for the both of you.”

“I love her. I mean, I really love her. And she says she loves me the same.”

“What happened to Katya?”

“Katya was kinda mean.”

“No kidding.”

Marty looked sheepish again. “I was going to tell Mom and Dad tonight while you’re at your get-together. I don’t suppose . . .”

“Don’t suppose what?”

“Don’t suppose you’ve got anything big you want to tell them first?”

“What?”

“I figure if it’s both of us, then the heat gets split in two. Less for each.”

“Anything big to tell them like what?” Adam held his brother’s stare, daring Marty to say it out loud. Marty didn’t, so Adam went on. “No matter how mad they’re going to be at you for this—and they will be—at the end of it, they get a grandchild. You weather the storm, there’s a happy ending for you.” He couldn’t stop himself from adding, “Like there always is.”

“Not always,” Marty said.

“More often than me.”

Marty shook his head again. “You’re still just a kid. You wouldn’t even know what it is to fall in love yet. You will, though, one day. I hope.”

“You’re twenty-two, Marty. What do you think you know about love?”

“Bro–”

“If Felice isn’t the first girl you’ve slept with, then she’s the second, right?”

“I don’t see what that has to do–”

“Well, one, my sex life is already more vibrant than yours–”

“I don’t want to hear about that–”

“And two, I know what it is to be in love, Marty.”

“No, you don’t. Teenage love isn’t love. Especially if it’s . . .” He stopped.

“Especially if it’s what?” Adam leaned into the truck, raised his voice. “Especially if it’s what?”

Marty looked genuinely distressed. “You think they don’t know? You think they don’t talk to me about you all the time?”

“They never talk to me about me, so I just imagined they did their best not to think about it at all.”

“Look, I’m not . . .” Marty threw his hands in the air, failed to grab the word he wanted, rested them again on the steering wheel. “I love you, bro, but you have to know that this life you’ve chosen–”

“Tread carefully, Marty. I mean it. The world has completely changed around you while you weren’t looking.”

Marty looked Adam square in the eye. “It’s not real love. Everybody’s convinced themselves that it is, but it isn’t. And it never will be.”

Adam was so angry he felt winded, his airways struggling to get enough oxygen against the upswell of rage and hurt rising from his stomach. He wanted a line, a well-worded sentence he could hurl at Marty and wipe that maddening pity off his face, one that would incidentally destroy the truck somehow while annihilating his brother’s empty-headed arrogance, one that would win this stupid, soul-sucking argument once and for all.

But all he got out was “Asshole.”

He took off running again, turning his music back up.

The horse and the companion goat watched him go.

He was stiff, had cooled off painfully, and it felt like he was running in leg splints, but he didn’t care. He ran anyway, leaving the truck behind.

I love you but . . .

It was always, always, “I love you but . . .”

He ran faster. And faster. And faster again.

This anger, he thought. This tedious, endless anger. Was that all there was ever going to be? Would it just twist him and twist him, obliterating everything else so he lost the ability to know when he should be angry because that was all there ever was?

He pushed, his strides growing longer, his hands opening and swinging higher into the sprint.

I don’t want this, he thought. I don’t want to be this person.

I don’t want to always fight.

I want to love.

I want to love.

I want to love Enzo.

His legs were at their physical limit. They felt disconnected from him, almost their own creatures, filled with a wobbly sting, like an injury in cold weather. If he stopped to think, he would lose his balance. Running was the only thing that kept him upright.

I want to love Linus, he thought.

I want to want to love Linus.

He approached his house from the opposite direction he’d driven away earlier this morning, down a small gully, his speed peaking, the fire hydrant as his finish line, the fire hydrant, the fire hydrant—

He passed it and let up, slowing to walk in a circle. His heart was pumping so hard he could see it pulse in his wrists, his chest gulping air like a goldfish flipped from its bowl.

The music still blasted in his earbuds. He saw his mom looking at him from under the brim of her very corny gardening hat. She had a degree in linguistics, was only forty-three years old, but for some reason insisted on dressing like a grandmother from a commercial for fancy cookies. Folksiness, he supposed. Though she’d have the grandmother thing sooner than she thought.

He continued his circle, huffing air, letting the pounding in his temples and ears recede. He’d twice pushed himself hard enough to vomit, and though it was awful, there felt something heroic in it, too, something powerful about going beyond what you could safely do, into oblivion, to the point where you could erase yourself, be erased.

For that reason, he didn’t know now if his hands were shaking because of the run or because he was still raging.

He stopped, bending at the waist, trying to breathe through his nose. Without looking up, he turned off his music, because his mom was clearly talking to him now.

“What’s that?”

“I said”—she ruthlessly cropped an uncooperative chrysanthemum—“I don’t know why you always need to make such a big production out of it. It’s just a run.”

“What?”

She made a series of honking sounds so ugly, it took him a second to realize she was making fun of his breathing. “It’s just a jog around town,” she said. “It’s not like you finished a marathon.”

Adam swallowed once. “Marty got a girl pregnant.”

She didn’t even consider believing him. “Oh, drama, drama, drama. One day, you’ll grow up, baby boy, and we’ll all–”

“He’s telling you and Dad this weekend. They’re going to get married and live in housing the school provides for families.”

She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it, then opened it again. “I don’t like this kind of story, Adam. You think it’s very amusing, but in the end, it’s just a lie. And about your brother.”

“Speak of the devil,” Adam said, “and in he drives.” For indeed, with timing so perfect he could have laughed, there was Marty’s truck, cresting the gully behind him.

His mom was severe now. “This isn’t funny, Adam.”

“No. I don’t suppose it is. I don’t know where he’s going to get the money to raise a baby and pay for his last year of school. Not with how strapped we are for cash right now.”

They watched Marty pull to a stop. He looked out at their faces, trying to figure out how much trouble he was in. It was probably this that made it start to sink in for his mother.

“Katya?” she almost whispered.

“Nope,” Adam said, turning his music back on and heading inside before all the shouting started.

He went straight to the shower, but within moments, he could hear them, even under the pouring water. His mother, mainly, wailing—there was really no other word for it— though possibly only because here was an opportunity to have a good wail rather than that she was genuinely that upset.

Marty came and pounded on the door of the bathroom.

“Why?” he shouted through it. “Why, bro?”

Adam just laced his hands behind his neck and stuck his head under the torrent.

Why indeed?

His chest still burned, so much he couldn’t tell where the anger stopped and the wound began. Because there was always a wound, it seemed, kept freshly opened by a family who also kept saying they loved him.

This was a day for crying, he knew that already, with Enzo leaving at the end of it. But not now. No. He wouldn’t.

They sure did know where to shoot the arrow, though.

Because what if they were right? What if there was something wrong with him? What if, on some level, way down deep inside, right down to the very simplest, purified form of who he was, what if he was corrupted? What if there was some tiny, tiny fault in the first building blocks of who he was, and everything since that first moment of life was just papering over an essential crack? And he was just a carapace built on a facade built on scaffolding and there was no real core to him, no real central worth? At all?

Can I love? he thought. Can I?

Can I be loved?

He finished the shower, dried himself, and—making sure Marty had left—snuck down the hall to his bedroom. He changed into his uniform for the Evil International Mega-Conglomerate—polyester, of course, but with some actual tailoring; the Evil International Mega-Conglomerate didn’t want to make its customers uncomfortable by having them think they were being assisted by the poor—and picked up his keys, an outfit to change into at Linus’s, and his phone.

He hesitated, then messaged, Sorry for telling them, bro. But you need to say sorry, too.

He sent it and tapped another name. Marty got a girl pregnant, he messaged. Not even kidding.

WHAT?!?! Angela messaged back. Did he even READ Judy Blume?

Things are kinda hairy over here. My mom is wailing.

You’re so lucky. My parents never get upset about anything.

He smiled to himself, but only because he knew he was supposed to, that this was what he’d been asking for. He didn’t feel it, though.

He waited and listened, trying to guess the right moment to slip out of the house without anybody seeing him.

 


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