Excerpt from Black River by S.M. Hulse, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Black River

A Novel

by S.M. Hulse

Black River by S.M. Hulse
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2016, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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Excerpt
Black River

When Wes woke a second time, the sun was already high over the mountains and Dennis was gone. In her last weeks, Claire had slept more and more, going to bed early and rising late, naps throughout the day. The doctors said it was normal, that she'd be harder to wake as they got closer to the end. Wes had slept less and less himself, staying up to watch the rise and fall of her chest, deluding himself into believing vigilance might make a difference. It'd been all he could do not to constantly bring her out of sleep, and sometimes he found himself shifting heavily in bed beside her, just enough to rouse her but pretend it was an accident. A little too easy to sleep long and deep now.

There was coffee in the pot on the kitchen counter, a clean mug beside it. Dennis feeling civil this morning. Wes poured, added a little sugar but no milk. Outside the night chill lingered despite the sun, and the wooden seat of the porch swing felt damp through his jeans. Wes waited for his coffee to cool, enjoying the heat of the mug on his palms. The property looked good. It wasn't much - twelve acres in all - but it'd always been plenty for Wes's family, the land narrow east to west but stretching south toward where the river hugged the bottom of the mountain slopes. The foothills rose abruptly here, as though the earth had suddenly run aground of something much stronger and sturdier and been left with nowhere to go but skyward. Old logging roads crossed the bare slopes like neat surgical scars. North of the house it was all wooded, but this side was pasture. Dennis had mowed it, replaced the old barbed wire with white rope, built a metal run-in shed. There were three horses in the field. No - two horses and a mule. They stood a few yards from one another, muzzles buried in separate piles of faded green hay. Wes watched the steady working of their jaws, the absent swishing of tails and twitching of ears.

The letter was still in the glove compartment. Still in its envelope. It had arrived the day of Claire's last biopsy, sandwiched between a medical bill and an insurance statement. He'd left it alone then. Overwhelmed. Other things to attend to. Truth was, Wes had a pretty good idea what was inside that envelope, and he thought he might put off opening it until it'd be too late to do anything about it. Probably not too late yet. Probably ought to leave it alone for a few more weeks.

In the pasture, the red horse began eating the mule's hay. The mule pinned his long ears, squealed and brayed, but the red horse ignored him and after a minute the mule walked to the vacant hay pile, swishing his meager tail hard against his flanks.

Wes set his coffee on the porch, crossed the yard to the truck. One of the horses, the black one, raised his head to watch. The envelope was made of cheap paper, had lost its crispness after a night in the glove compartment. There was a familiar black ink-stamped return address in the corner, not straight: The State of Montana Department of Corrections. Been a long while since Wes got a letter with that mark. He settled back on the porch and took his pocketknife off his belt. Twice he got his thumbnail against the groove in the blade, and twice the knife slipped from his fingers. He tried once more, forcing his grip until the deep ache flared in his joints and the knife clattered to the porch, skittering across the wooden boards and over the edge into the grass. The simplest fucking things. The black horse was still watching.

Wes stood, retrieved the knife. Finally got it open, slipped the blade beneath the envelope's flap and sliced. One sheet inside, the message short and to the point: The State of Montana Department of Corrections inmate Robert F. Williams had come eligible for parole. He, Wesley J. Carver, had the right to deliver a statement at the hearing. No acknowledgment there that he'd given twenty-one years of his life, and then some, to the service of the state. Just the same duty-done letter Victim Services sent to everyone, impersonal enough it took a more generous man than Wes not to think they were hoping folks would stay out of it altogether. It was dated three weeks ago. Still relevant for another five.

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Excerpted from Black River by S.M. Hulse. Copyright © 2015 by S.M. Hulse. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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