Home > The Serpent King(2)

The Serpent King(2)
Jeff Zentner

He opened the car door and got in. The frigid air conditioning made his pores shrink.

“Hey, Lydia.”

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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

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