Excerpt

The Last King of California: Excerpt and Cover Reveal!

Jordan Harper

The following is an exclusive excerpt from and cover reveal for The Last King of California, the new novel from author Jordan Harper, forthcoming from Mulholland Books in November 2024.

If the world is flat like the Internet says, then this is the edge. The mountains on either side of the Cajon Pass are crumbled and cracked ruins slumping under a starless sky. It looks like where the earth runs out, the place before no place. Not that Luke really believes the earth is flat. But just now it seems like one of those online ideas – like the one about how the government and corporations are run by lizards only playing at being people – that’s true enough to make a point.

Luke is nineteen, tall in a way nobody ever seems to notice, everything about him drawn thin like he’s been stretched on a rack. His hair is getting long, odd bits sticking out all over. He’s got the eyes of someone outnumbered, even when he is alone – maybe then most of all.

He’s driven for sixteen hours now, that long slow fall from Colorado to California, stopping only to piss or buy food. He drives slumped forward so that he steers with his forearms resting on the wheel, so tired that ghost rabbits dance at the corners of his eyes. His stomach burns, his gut flora roiling in open rebellion. He figures they’ve earned the right. He’s been firebombing them all day with energy drinks and bags of flamin’ hot extruded whatever.

Or maybe it’s something else that’s riled them. Something that’s been bubbling in him since he passed into California for the first time in twelve years. Something thick and black that tastes like root beer.

He is coming home.

His head snaps up, a trance breaking. How long had it been since he’d thought about the road? Weird how the body can drive without you, how there is a stranger in your brain that keeps you from drifting across the center line while you are somewhere else.

He cracks the window to let the cold air slap him awake. In his memories of this place – the ones he lets himself have – the Inland Empire is a place of unending heat. He forgot how cold the nights can be, how sometimes the desert holds no ghost of the heat that rules it during the day.

The music he’s streaming feels wrong now. Skittering mumble rap he got into at school, echoing weirdness that sounded right in his cave of an apartment in Colorado Springs. Here on the edge of the world it sounds tinny and bad. He pokes at his phone to shut it off.

He drives in silence.

His teeth harvest the skin off his lips in thin strands.

His hands drum against the wheel.

He jabs the radio button. A blast of static. He jabs again, his radio scanning to find a station. A man bellows – Low cost insurance even if you have a DUI – an air-horn choir behind him. It is demonic as fuck. But better than the silence.

Luke’s phone tells him the turn-off is coming. He checks behind him to switch lanes, catches a rear-view glimpse of the back seat crammed with everything he owns. His clothes piled in a hamper, his skateboard. The box with his single pot and his single pan, the plastic spoon and spatula. His box of books, his Algebra 101 textbook poking out of the top.

Looking at the math book fills him with hot shame. Maybe that’s why he brought it, gave it this place of honor in the rear-view mirror. To remind him how he wound up here, the only place he has left to run to, the last place in the world he belongs.

The exit to Devore looms ahead.

The pulse in his neck thumps turn-back turn-back turn-back.

Turn back where? To his apartment in Colorado Springs that he fled owing two months’ rent? To his mother’s people who had passed him around like a serving dish from the time he was seven until exactly the day of his eighteenth birthday?

Again he has that feeling like he’s standing with his toes poking over the edge of this flat earth. He thinks on something he read in a novel in Intro to World Lit, before he quit going to class altogether. About how when you peek over the side of a cliff and get that swooshing feeling in your belly, that it isn’t a fear of falling. In fact, the book said, it is the opposite. Vertigo is the fight in your mind between the part that wants to save you and the part that wants to fall.

The exit lanes slopes down from the highway. He takes it down into the dark.

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Excerpt continues after cover reveal.

The Last King of California
(Mulholland Books, November 2024)

__________________________________

His only memories of this place are a child’s, so that it feels both familiar and strange at the same time. Like the rooms in a dream.

Luke’s wheels spit gravel as he leaves the paved road and heads up into the hills. Rock walls dotted with grease-wood and mummified monkeyflowers rise up on either side. He looks down at his phone. Here in the crevices there is no signal. Something inside tells him when to turn. He drives in submarine dark for three football fields before he sees the lights.

Home. At least it was once.

The sheet-metal gate that dead-ends the gravel road is pulled shut. Past the gate, up the hill, Luke can see the house with its broad front porch. He remembers a swinging loveseat. Now there’s only a row of fold-out camping chairs, the kind that look woven out of seat belts. A couple of big trucks sit in the gravel in front of the house. Lights burn behind the curtains of the front windows. Behind the house the box canyon stretches, and in the half-moon light he can see shadows of junkers and brush piles, and something new, something like a second house against the far back wall of the canyon.

Luke knows there’s no nerves in the meat of the brain, so this feeling of a thumb pressed deep into the center of his head is just bullshit. But he feels it anyway – the pressure that is almost always there, juicing his adrenal gland. You cannot smell adrenaline, but Luke’s sure it smells like root beer.

Luke stops his car and climbs out to lift the hitch and open the gate. He’s too tired to lift his feet clear. They shush through the gravel as he walks to the latch.

‘Hey now,’ a voice says in the dark.

Luke freezes, his hand inches from the latch. He has this feeling like being dunked in cold water.

This scuzzy kid comes out of the dark. The kid, old enough to drive but not much more, is a head-and-a-half shorter than Luke, but stocky. His dark hair hangs greasy down to his shoulders; he has a sad teenage mustache. He wears a heavy metal T-shirt under a jean jacket with the sleeves hacked off. He carries something long in his hands.

The pit bull that runs ahead of him is the color of a bad day. Her ears are combat-clipped into tiny triangles and her muzzle carries old scars, but when she pokes her head between the wide slats of the gate her tongue lolls out of a friendly idiot grin. The kid follows behind. When he steps into the slashes of headlight Luke sees the thing in his hands is a rifle.

‘You’re in the wrong place.’

No shit, Luke almost says.

‘I’m Luke.’ He tries to say it strong and clear, but it gets caught up in his throat and comes out a rasp.

‘You’re what now?’ The kid is not pointing the rifle at Luke, but he holds it at the ready. Luke can’t meet the kid’s eyes so he studies his shirt, the words ‘POWER TRIP’ written in electric letters, a skeleton king underneath the logo.

‘I’m Luke,’ he says again, better this time. ‘They know I’m coming. Del’s my uncle.’

The kid spits into the dark.

‘You’re Luke Crosswhite?’

Luke almost reaches for his wallet, like he’s going to show this kid ID to prove it. He catches himself, thinks about how lame that would be. He nods instead and mumbles some sort of yes.

The kid works his jaw like he’s thinking of spitting again but can’t wrangle the sputum to pull it off.

‘Kathy said you was en route. I thought it was like next week is all. You’re a college kid, right?’

‘I was.’ He doesn’t say, Before I blew it all up.

The kid scratches himself under the chin with the barrel of the rifle, as if thinking on casual suicide. He looks Luke over, like he’s trying to make sense of how this skinny kid with scared eyes could be the seed of Big Bobby Crosswhite.

‘You even know what goes on down here?’ he asks.

‘Yeah.’

The kid laughs like the hell you do.

‘So you’re coming to join the Combine then?’ the kid asks, but Luke’s pretty sure he’s fucking with him, that even in the dark this kid must be able to see from the sweat on Luke’s forehead and the pulse of his neck that Luke has no place in his family’s business, no matter who his dad is.

‘I just need a place to crash, get my head above water, you know?’

The kid blows across the rifle’s muzzle, drawing out a low sad tone.

‘Well, they got a place laid out for you. Hell, it’s your dad’s land anyway, right?’

Luke can almost see the thoughts splash across the kid’s face next as he has them one by one: But your dad’s not hereten years left on his sentence at leastoh shit oh shit

‘Oh shit,’ the kid says. ‘You were there. At Arrowhead.’

Luke’s face must do something. The kid whistles low like goddamn. Luke worries he’s going to want to talk about it, maybe ask questions that Luke can’t handle. But instead the kid moves forward and reaches for the gate latch.

‘I’m Sam,’ he says. The pit bull goes through the gap in the gate as soon as it’s wide enough to fit her. She hits Luke with her body, that way dogs do like they love you so much they want to mix their atoms together with yours. Luke kneels down to take her hungry affection and give some back.

Sam comes through the gate behind her.

‘That’s Manson. She’s a stone killer. Only thing is she doesn’t know it.’

Luke rises, looks towards the light spilling from the house. In the windows, shapes from inside project against the closed curtains. Men standing close to the light so their shadows fill the windows, making them giants, the way they’d always seemed to Luke back when he had lived here and the house was often filled with the huge roaring men of the Devore Combine.

‘Del and them’s talking with this dude Pinkle from out in the desert,’ Sam says, talking low, his eyes gleaming like he’s sharing juicy gossip. ‘Some shit went down out in Hangtree, I think. I think maybe somebody got got.’

A dark thrill runs through Luke at those words, and he thinks about asking more, to find out what really goes on down here. But a wave of panic washes through him at the thought, and he studies the gravel until the moment passes.

‘It’s black hearts only, so they got me on lookout.’ Sam touches his shirt over his heart. ‘I’m due mine soon, for real.’

Black hearts kick up memories of black-ink hearts tattooed over real ones, men laughing and lifting Luke into the air, the taste of ice and root beer.

Luke swallows the memories before they swallow him first.

He thinks, Please don’t let it happen here.

‘So, should I wait?’ Luke asks. ‘I’ve been driving since dawn, mountain time. I just want to crash.’

‘Don’t think you’re meant to stay in the big house. Kathy fixed up the trailer out back for you.’ Sam nods to the shape back against the canyon wall.

Luke wants to say But my bedroom is there, but he knows it would come out weird and childish. Something about this feels right anyway, that he wouldn’t be let inside. He just nods again.

‘I’ll let them know what’s up when the meeting’s done,’ Sam says. ‘There’s room to park right next to the trailer.’

‘Thanks.’

The kid touches his shirt over his heart again. ‘Blood is love.’

Somebody says Hey Bobby what’s up Bobby blood is love Bobby in Luke’s head. He’s worried that if he stays out here much longer he’s going to say something strange. So he mumbles some sort of seeya and climbs back into his car.

Luke drives up onto the property. As he passes he looks behind him to the back of the house, at the back right corner, the window of his childhood bedroom where he thought he’d be sleeping tonight. The window is dark. He drives through the skeletons of old cars, junk, shadowy and unidentifiable on either side of the gravel. He parks next to the trailer that is his home now. It is covered in brown siding, lifted off the ground with cinderblocks, spear grass growing tall around it.

He kills the engine. The dash lights glow for a while. Then they go out. He sits in the darkness and tries to make sense of his insides. Other folk seem to know right away what it is that they’re feeling, have words for it and everything. Luke hardly ever knows how to name the things that swim so huge inside him. He doesn’t know if he is smart or dumb, happy or sad. He doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he is going. All he knows for sure is that he does not belong here. That he is his father’s child but not his son.

He watches in the rear-view as Sam pushes shut the gate. It’s like he can hear it shut from here. But of course he can’t.

He lets himself into the trailer, bringing in just his backpack and a half-drunk bottle of water. He doesn’t turn on the lights. In the dim he sees the hotplate kitchen, the bathroom with its toilet and shower in the same stall, before falling onto the bed. Sleep comes fast for once.

He wakes to the sound of meat and bone colliding.

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Excerpted from the book THE LAST KING OF CALIFORNIA by Jordan Harper. Copyright © 2024 by Jordan Harper. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.




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