There were things Dillard Wayne Early Jr. dreaded more than the start of school at Forrestville High. Not many, but a few. Thinking about the future was one of them. Dill didn’t enjoy doing that. He didn’t much care for talking about religion with his mother. That never left him feeling happy or saved. He loathed the flash of recognition that usually passed across people’s faces when they learned his name. That rarely resulted in a conversation he enjoyed.
And he really didn’t enjoy visiting his father, Pastor Dillard Early Sr., at Riverbend Prison. His trip to Nashville that day wasn’t to visit his father, but he still had a nagging sense of unformed dread and he didn’t know why. It might have been because school was starting the next day, but this felt different somehow than in years past.
It would have been worse except for the excitement of seeing Lydia. The worst days spent with her were better than the best days spent without her.
Dill stopped strumming his guitar, leaned forward, and wrote in the dollar-store composition book open on the floor in front of him. The decrepit window air conditioner wheezed, losing the battle against the mugginess of his living room.
The thudding of a wasp at the window caught his attention over the laboring of the air conditioner. He rose from the ripped sofa and walked to the window, which he jimmied until it screeched open.
Dill swatted the wasp toward the crack. “You don’t want to stay in here,” he murmured. “This house is no place to die. Go on. Get.”
It alighted on the sill, considered the house one more time, and flew free. Dill shut the window, almost having to hang from it to close it all the way.
His mother walked in wearing her motel maid’s uniform. She looked tired. She always did, which made her seem much older than her thirty-five years. “What were you doing with the window open and the AC on? Electricity’s not free.”
Dill turned. “Wasp.”
“Why you all dressed to leave? You going somewhere?”
“Nashville.” Please don’t ask the question I know you’re going to ask.
“Visiting your father?” She sounded both hopeful and accusatory.
“No.” Dill looked away.
His mother stepped toward him and sought his eyes. “Why not?”
Dill avoided her glare. “Because. That’s not why we’re going.”
“Me. Lydia. Travis. Same as always.”
She put a hand on her hip. “Why you going, then?”
“Your clothes are fine.”
“No they’re not. They’re getting too small.” Dill lifted his skinny arms, his T-shirt exposing his lean stomach.
“With what money?” His mother’s brow--already more lined than most women’s her age--furrowed.
“Just my tips from helping people to their cars with their groceries.”
“Free trip to Nashville. You should visit your father.”
You better go visit your father or else, you mean. Dill set his jaw and looked at her. “I don’t want to. I hate it there.”
She folded her arms. “It’s not meant to be fun. That’s why it’s prison. Think he enjoys it?”
Probably more than I enjoy it. Dill shrugged and gazed back out the window. “Doubt it.”
“I don’t ask for much, Dillard. It would make me happy. And it would make him happy.”
Dill sighed and said nothing. You ask for plenty without ever actually asking for it.
“You owe him. You’re the only one with enough free time.”
She would hang it over his head. If he didn’t visit, she would make it hurt worse for longer than if he gave in. The dread in Dill’s stomach intensified. “Maybe. If we have time.”
As his mother was about to try to drag a firmer commitment from him, a bestickered Toyota Prius zoomed up his road and screeched to a stop in front of his house with a honk. Thank you, God.
“I gotta go,” Dill said. “Have a good day at work.” He hugged his mother goodbye.
But he was out the door before she had the chance. He felt burdened as he stepped into the bright summer morning, shielding his eyes against the sun. The humidity mounted an assault even at nine-twenty in the morning--like a hot, wet towel wrapped around his face. He glanced at the peeling white Calvary Baptist Church up the street from his house. He squinted to read the sign out of habit. no jesus, no peace. know jesus, know peace.
What if you know Jesus but have no peace? Does that mean the sign is wrong, or does that mean you don’t know Jesus quite as well as you think? Dill hadn’t been raised to consider either a particularly good outcome.
He opened the car door and got in. The frigid air conditioning made his pores shrink.
She grabbed a worn copy of The Secret History off the passenger seat before Dill sat on it, and tossed it in the backseat. “Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re not sorry.”
“Of course I’m not. But I have to pretend. Social contractual obligations and whatnot.”
You could set your clock by Lydia’s being twenty minutes late. And it was no use trying to trick her by telling her to meet you at a time twenty minutes before you really wanted to meet. That only made her forty minutes late. She had a sixth sense.
Lydia leaned over and hugged Dill. “You’re already sweaty and it’s still morning. Boys are so gross.”
The black frames of her glasses creaked against his cheekbone. Her tousled smoky-blue hair--the color of a faded November sky streaked with clouds--smelled like honey, fig, and vetiver. He breathed it in. It made his head swim in a pleasant way. She had dressed for Nashville in a vintage sleeveless red gingham blouse with black high-waisted denim shorts and vintage cowboy boots. He loved the way she dressed--every twist and turn, and there were many.
Dill buckled his seat belt the instant before her acceleration pressed him into his seat. “Sorry. I don’t have access to AC that makes August feel like December.” He sometimes went days without feeling air as cool as in Lydia’s car except for when he opened the refrigerator.
She reached out and turned the air conditioning down a couple of clicks. “I think my car should fight global warming in every possible way.”
Dill angled one of the vents toward his face. “You ever think about how weird it is that Earth is hurtling through the black vacuum of space, where it’s like a thousand below zero, and meanwhile we’re down here sweating?”
“I often think about how weird it is that Earth is hurtling through the black vacuum of space and meanwhile you’re down here being a total weirdo.”
“So, where are we going in Nashville? Opry Mills Mall or something?”
Lydia glared at him and looked back at the road. She extended her hand toward him, still looking forward. “Excuse me, I thought we’d been best friends since ninth grade, but apparently we’ve never even met. Lydia Blankenship. You are?”
Dill took advantage of the opportunity to take her hand. “Dillard Early. Maybe you’ve heard of my father by the same name.”
It had thoroughly scandalized Forrestville, Tennessee, when Pastor Early of the Church of Christ’s Disciples with Signs of Belief went to the state penitentiary--and not for the reasons anyone expected. Everyone assumed he’d get in trouble someday for the twenty-seven or so rattlesnakes and copperheads his congregants passed around each Sunday. No one knew with certainty what law they were breaking, but it seemed unlawful somehow. And the Tennessee Department of Wildlife did take custody of the snakes after his arrest. Or people thought perhaps he’d run afoul of the law by inducing his flock to drink diluted battery acid and strychnine, another favored worship activity. But no, he went to Riverbend Prison for a different sort of poison: possession of more than one hundred images depicting a minor engaged in sexual activity.
Lydia tilted her head and squinted. “Dillard Early, huh? The name rings a bell. Anyway, yes, we’re driving an hour and a half to Nashville to go to Opry Mills Mall and buy you the same sweatshop garbage that Tyson Reed, Logan Walker, Hunter Henry, their intolerable girlfriends, and all of their horrible friends will also be wearing on the first day of senior year.”
“I ask a simple question--”
She raised a finger. “A stupid question.”
“A stupid question.”
Dill’s eyes fell on Lydia’s hands at the steering wheel. They were slender, with long, graceful fingers; vermilion-colored nails; and lots of rings. The rest of her wasn’t ungraceful but her fingers were affirmatively and aggressively graceful. He relished watching her drive. And type. And do everything she did with her hands.
“Did you call Travis to tell him you were running late?”
“Did I call you to tell you I was running late?” She took a turn fast, squealing her tires.
“Think it’ll come as a surprise to him that I’m running late?”
The August air was a steamy haze. Dill could already hear the bugs, whatever they were called. The ones that made a pulsing, rattling drone on a sweltering morning, signaling that the day would only grow hotter. Not cicadas, he didn’t think. Rattlebugs. That seemed as good a name as any.
“What am I working with today?” Lydia asked. Dill gave her a blank stare. She held up her hand and rubbed her fingers together. “Come on, buddy, keep up here.”
“Oh. Fifty bucks. Can you work with that?”
She snorted. “Of course I can work with that.”
“Okay, but no dressing me weird.”
Lydia extended her hand to him again--more forcefully, as though karate chopping a board. “No, but seriously. Have we met? What was your name again?”
Dill grasped her hand again. Any excuse. “You’re in a mood today.”
“I’m in the mood to receive a little credit. Not much. Don’t spoil me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“In the last two years of school shopping, have I ever made you look ridiculous?”
“No. I mean, I still caught hell for stuff, but I’m sure that would’ve happened no matter what I wore.”
“It would. Because we go to school with people who wouldn’t recognize great style if it bit them right on their ass. I have a vision for you, planted in rustic Americana. Western shirts with pearl snaps. Denim. Classic, masculine, iconic lines. While everyone else at Forrestville High tries desperately to appear as though they don’t live in Forrestville, we’ll embrace and own your rural Southernness, continuing in the vein of 1970s Townes Van Zandt meets Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams.”
“You’ve planned this.” Dill savored the idea of Lydia thinking about him. Even if only as a glorified mannequin.
“Would you expect less?”
Dill breathed in the fragrance of her car. Vanilla car freshener mixed with french fries, jasmine-orange-ginger lotion, and heated makeup. They were almost to Travis’s house. He lived close to Dill. They stopped at an intersection, and Lydia took a selfie with her cell phone and handed it to Dill.
“Get me from your angle.”
“You sure? Your fans might start thinking you have friends.”
“Hardy har. Do it and let me worry about that.”
A couple of blocks later, they pulled up to the Bohannon house. It was white and rundown with a weathered tin roof and wood stacked on the front porch. Travis’s father perspired in the gravel driveway, changing out the spark plugs on his pickup that had the name of the family business, Bohannon Lumber, stenciled on the side. He cast Dill and Lydia a briny glare, cupped his hand to his mouth, and yelled, “Travis, you got company,” saving Lydia the trouble of honking.
“Pappy Bohannon looks to be in a bit of a mood himself,” Lydia said.
“To hear Travis tell it, Pappy Bohannon is in a permanent mood. It’s called being a giant asshole, and it’s incurable.”
A moment or two passed before Travis came loping outside. Ambling, perhaps. Whatever bears do. All six feet, six inches, and 250 pounds of him. His shaggy, curly red hair and patchy red teenager beard were wet from the shower. He wore his signature black work boots, black Wranglers, and baggy black dress shirt buttoned all the way up. Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a chintzy pewter dragon gripping a purple crystal ball--a memento from some Renaissance festival. He always wore it. He carried a dog-eared paperback from the Bloodfall series, something else he was seldom without.
Halfway to the car, he stopped, raised a finger, and spun and ran back to the house, almost tripping over his feet. Lydia hunched over, her hands on the wheel, watching him.
“Oh no. The staff,” she murmured. “He forgot the staff.”
Dill groaned and did a facepalm. “Yep. The staff.”
“The oaken staff,” Lydia said in a grandiose, medieval voice.
“The magic staff of kings and lords and wizards and . . . elves or whatever.”
Travis returned, clutching his staff, symbols and faces carved on it with clumsy hands. His father glanced up with a pained expression, shook his head, and resumed work. Travis opened the car door.
“The staff? Really?” Lydia said.
“I bring it on journeys. ’Sides, what if we need it to protect ourselves? Nashville is dangerous.”
“Yeah,” Lydia said, “but it’s not dangerous because of all the staff-wielding brigands. They have guns now. Gun beats staff in gun-staff-scissors.”
“I highly doubt we’ll get in a staff fight in Nashville,” Dill said.
“I like it. It makes me feel good to have it.”
Lydia rolled her eyes and put the car into gear. “Bless your heart. Okay, boys. Let’s do this. The last time we ever go school shopping together, thank the sweet Lord.”
And with that pronouncement, Dill realized that the dread in his stomach wouldn’t be going away any time soon. Maybe never. The final indignity? He doubted he’d even get a good song out of it.
The Nashville skyline loomed in the distance. Lydia liked Nashville. Vanderbilt was on her college list. Not high on the list, but there. Thinking about colleges put her in a good mood, as did being in a big city. All in all, she felt a lot happier than she had the day before the start of any school year in her life. She could only imagine what she’d be feeling the day before next school year--freshman year of college.
As they entered the outskirts of Nashville, Dill stared out the window. Lydia had given him her camera and assigned him to be expedition photographer, but he forgot to take pictures. He had his normal faraway affect and distinct air of melancholy. Today seemed different somehow, though. Lydia knew that visits to Nashville were a bittersweet affair for him because of his father, and she’d consciously tried to pick a route that would differ from the one he took to visit the prison. She spent a fair amount of time on Google Maps plotting, but to no avail. There were only so many routes from Forrestville to Nashville.
Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Zentner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.