Home > The Serpent King(7)

The Serpent King(7)
Jeff Zentner

He wore dark-blue denim pants and a light-blue scrub shirt with a number stenciled on the breast and TDOC stenciled on the back.

His father sauntered up. He had a predatory, wary walk. “Hello, Junior.” Dill hated being called Junior. They stood and faced each other for a second. They weren’t allowed to hug or touch in any way. Dill could smell him across the table. He didn’t smell bad, exactly, but unmistakably human. Primal. Like skin and hair that weren’t washed as often as free people’s.

They sat down. Dill’s father set his hands on the table. He had MARK tattooed across one set of knuckles and 1618 tattooed across the other. The tattoos were a new development. And not a good one. Not a promising sign to see him moving in the direction of more weirdness.

Dill tried to sound casual. “Hi, Dad. You got some tattoos, looks like.”

His father glanced at his hands, as though learning a new piece of information. “Yes, I did. They won’t let me practice my signs ministry in here, so I wear my faith on my skin. They can’t take that from me.”

Looks like you’re doing fine in here. When his father had gone to prison, everyone supposed he’d have a hard time, considering what his conviction was for. But they underestimated his father’s charisma. Apparently if you can convince people to pick up rattlesnakes and copperheads and drink poison, you can convince people to protect you from what his father called “the Sodomites.”

They sat and regarded each other for several awkward seconds.

“So…how are you doing?” Dill asked.

“I’m living one day at a time, praise Jesus.”

“Are you…getting enough to eat?” Prison small talk was hard. Not even the weather was a topic of mutual interest.

“My needs are met. How are you and your mother?”

“Surviving. Working hard.”

His intense eyes glittered with a strange light that made Dill feel dark inside. “I’m glad to hear that. Work hard. Pay off our debts, so I can rebuild my ministry when my time here is done. Perhaps you can join me if you’ve grown mighty in faith by then.”

Dill squirmed. “Yeah, maybe. Anyway, school starts tomorrow.”

His father rested his elbows on the table and interlaced his fingers as if he were praying. “It’s about that time of year, isn’t it? And how will you spend this year in school? Will you be a soldier for Christ and spread the good news of salvation and its signs to your peers? Will you do the work I cannot?”

Dill shifted again in his seat and looked away. He didn’t like making eye contact with his father. His father had the kind of eyes that made people do things they knew could hurt them. “I—I mean, I don’t think my classmates really care that much what I have to say.” Perfect. A reminder of how unpopular I am combined with a reminder of how much I disappoint my dad, all rolled into one package. Visiting prison sure is fun.

His father scooted in, his eyes boring into Dill, a conspiratorial hush to his voice. “Then don’t say. Sing. Lift that voice God’s given you. Use those hands that God blessed with music. Spread the gospel through song. Young people love music.”

Dill stifled a bitter laugh. “Yeah…but not music about picking up snakes and stuff. That kind of music isn’t that popular.”

“The Spirit will move in them the way it moved in our congregation when you sang and played. And when I get out, our congregation will have grown tenfold.”

How about I just try to survive the school year? How about I don’t do anything to add to the ridicule? “Look, Dad, your—our…situation…makes it hard for me to talk to my classmates about stuff like this. They don’t really want to hear it, you know?”

His father snorted. “So we surrender to Lucifer’s device to ruin our signs ministry? We hand him victory without argument?”

“No, I—I don’t—” The surrealness of being made to feel unworthy by a prison inmate set in, preventing Dill from finishing his thought.

“Remember how you would write psalms and sing them with the praise band? Remember that?”

“Yeah. I guess. Yeah.”

Dill’s father sat back in his seat, looking off, shaking his head slightly. “Those songs were beautiful.” He stared back at Dill. “Sing one for me.”

“You mean—like right here? Now?” Dill looked for any sign that his father was joking. That would be an exceedingly rare occurrence, but still.

“Yes. The one you wrote. ‘And Christ Will Make Us Free.’ ”

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