Unconditional

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Cover art copyright 2011 by Jeroen ten Berge

All rights reserved.

BOOKREPORTER

Blake Crouch is the most exciting new thriller writer I've read in years.

DAVID MORRELL

UNCONDITIONAL is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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* * * * *

“Not feeling nothing will drive you to do strange and evil things. This ain’t excuses. Just the way it is.

“You’re looking older, but I guess I am too, right? You missed it. I had a beard yesterday that I’d been growing for years. Looked like some demon prophet. But I figured I should have it cut. See my face one last time. Look, this is more than I talked to anybody in years, and still, it’s about all I got to say, so…

“What?

“Want me to read this now? While you watch?

“You’re just like all of ’em, you know that? Want to bleed me for something, and I can already guess what it is.

“Ain’t I right?

“No?

“Yeah. I am. And if you think you’re going to leave here knowing, I got some news for you.”

My son do you remember the backpacking trip we made into the Ozarks when you were eight years old? I still have a photograph of us squatting by a campfire, you looking cross in the cold with your arms wrapped ’round yourself in that green fleece jacket which last week I took down out of the attic for the first time in ages. Sat alone at the kitchen table late into the night fingering the cinder burns our campfire had made, the polyester melted into circles of plastic. The fleece still carries your scent, or at least some smell my brain has been long-programmed to associate with you.

In my bedroom hanging above the chest of drawers is a drawing you made for me twenty-seven years ago one morning when I was rushing out the door to work. Black Sharpie on orange construction paper—a tall house with too many windows. A tree. Flock of birds in the sky and in the wobbly scrawl of a five-year-old: “I love you, Papa.” I know what it does to me to look at the drawing and the photograph. I wonder what it would do to you? Are you capable of being moved by anything?

I remember teaching you how to tie a fly. How to cast. The joy in your face as you lifted your first rainbow from the current—exhilaration and pride. The other day I drove past the playing field beside the Episcopal church. A perfect October afternoon. The light golden. Leaves turning. Children playing soccer. Ruddy faces and grass-stained knees, and I thought of all the games I watched you play. I can still hear your high-voiced questions, so many of them, coming from the backseat of our car as the three of us drove home from somewhere on some night I failed to appreciate what I had.

When I was a boy, I passed a homeless man, drunk and begging on a street corner. My father, sensing my disgust, said something I never forgot, that I think of every time I see your face on the news or in the paper—“That man was once someone’s little boy.”

I cannot separate the man you are now from the boy you were then, and it is killing me.

I wanted everything for you, son.

I still do.

You never experienced the gift of children, and I hate that for you, because you won’t understand how I can still love you, how, even though you took everything from me, you’re still all that I have.

When you were a child, I didn’t tell you about the evil in the world, all that lay in wait. In the same way, let’s forget all that’s happened in the past, and let me just be your Papa for the four and a half hours you have left to live. When they strap you down, please say your piece to the families of the victims, but then find my eyes, seek out my face, and if you hold any shred of love for me, take comfort in my presence.

The night of your birth while your mother slept I walked you up and down the hospital corridor, your tiny heart racing against my chest. I sang into your ear, told you that no matter what happened, I would be your Papa.

Always.

And I stand by that still.

The young man behind the Plexiglas turns over the last page of the letter and stares into the scuffs in the table. Through the walls, you can hear metal doors closing, bolts sliding home, the distant voices of the guards. He doesn’t look anything like a monster. Rather, an IT guy. Wire-rim glasses. Scrawny and slight. Five-seven in shoes with generous heels. Five-six in the prison-issue flip-flops. He’s had a recent shave.

The old man startles when he reaches up to unshelve the phone again.

For a long time, they both just breathe into the receivers, and when he speaks, his voice is soft and southern and contains a raspy, blown-out quality, as if he spent the last four years screaming.

“That’s all you got to say to me?”

As his father nods, he can see the long, blanched line of scarring across the old man’s throat, and he feels a flicker—not remorse, not regret, just some unidentified emotional response, alien because it’s rare.

“I heard they had to cut out your voicebox.”

A nod.

“And you won’t use one of them speech enhancement devices?”

Shake.

“Hell, I wouldn’t either. I don’t want to speak for you, but I would think not having to talk to assholes has a bright side.”

His old man breaks the slightest smile.

“So you aren’t going to ask me? That’s not why you came?”

A look of recognition passes across his father’s hazel eyes like the shadow of a cloud, and the old man shakes his head.

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