Home > The Serpent King(6)

The Serpent King(6)
Jeff Zentner

Lydia motioned for everyone to huddle up. “Let’s get some pictures of all of us together. Last school shopping trip to Nashville.”

Dill forced a smile. “Come on, dude, you can do better than that,” Lydia said. He tried again. No better.

“Hey, Lydia, could you take a couple of pictures of me with my staff?”

Lydia was exuberant over the coup she’d scored for Dill, her own clothing finds, and her stylish older new friend. Still, she feigned great annoyance, for consistency’s sake. “Oh all right. Go on. Fetch thy staff.”

Travis bounded to the car and grabbed it. He returned and assumed a grim, contemplative stance. “Okay.”

Lydia took several pictures. Travis changed poses: leaning on his staff, holding the staff at the ready to strike. “Make sure you can see my dragon necklace in them.”

“Dude. I’m not a beginner at making sure cute accessories feature prominently in photos.”

When she finished, Travis came up beside her to look at her work, a wide, childlike grin lighting up his face. He smelled of sweat and the musty odor of clothes that had been left too long in the washing machine before going into the dryer.

“I look good in these,” he murmured. “Like Raynar Northbrook from Bloodfall.”

Dill craned to take a peek. “Oh, those have Raynar Northbrook written all over them.” His teasing went over Travis’s head.

Lydia clapped. “Gentlemen. I’m hungry. Let’s go to Panera.”

“Panera’s too fancy. I want to go to Krystal’s,” Travis said.

“(A), it’s ‘Krystal,’ singular and nonpossessive. And (b), no.”

“Come on, you got to pick the music on the way.”

“There’s a Krystal in Forrestville. There’s no Panera. We didn’t drive all this way to eat at dumb Krystal and get the same diarrhea we could get in Forrestville.”

“Let’s let Dill decide. He can be the tiebreaker.”

Dill had been staring into the distance. “I’m…not hungry. I’ll eat at home.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Travis said. “You can still vote.”

“A vote for Krystal is a vote for walking home,” Lydia said.

“I vote for Panera then,” Dill said, with a more genuine smile.

They ended up getting Krystal for Travis.

Dill had hoped that when he asked if they could make a stop at the prison on the way out of town, after eating, Lydia would say that she had to get home for some reason and couldn’t possibly wait for him to visit his father. But no.

Riverbend Prison was in a deceptively beautiful, pastoral part of Nashville. Rolling hills and a lush carpet of trees surrounded blocky beige buildings with slit windows.

“I won’t be too long, y’all. You know I hate it here,” Dill said, getting out of the car.

Lydia tapped away at her phone. “No worries, dude. I can work on my back-to-school blog post.”

Travis held up his book.

“You guys are supposed to tell me how important it is for you to get home,” Dill said.

“Oh, right,” Lydia said, not looking up. “Okay, Dill, hurry it up in there or, like, I’ll be grounded or get spanked or something.”

“Yeah, hurry it up, Dill,” Travis said. “I really want to get home and hang out with my cool dad instead of reading my favorite book.”

Dill gave them an uneasy smile and flipped them the bird. He took a deep breath and walked toward the main building. He went through security and signed in. Guards took him to the visiting area. It didn’t look like the visiting areas on TV. There weren’t clear dividers and telephone handsets. There was a big room full of round tables, each with two or three chairs, and some vending machines. It resembled his school cafeteria, and he was as excited to be there as he would be at his school cafeteria. It was stuffy and just cool enough to remind you that the building had air conditioning, but some budget or moral constraint kept it from being used to make things very comfortable. Several guards kept vigil around the room.

Dill was the only visitor there. He sat at the table and drummed his fingers. He couldn’t stop bouncing his legs. Just get through this.

He turned and stood as a door opened and a guard led in Dillard Early Sr.

Dill’s father was tall and gaunt, rawboned. He had deep-set dark eyes; a handlebar mustache; and long, greasy black hair streaked with gray and tied in a ponytail. Every time Dill saw him, he appeared harder. More cunning. More feral and serpentine. Prison was whittling him down, carving away what little softness and gentleness he had. He was almost exactly ten years older than Dill’s mother, but he looked twenty years older.

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