Home > The Serpent King(8)

The Serpent King(8)
Jeff Zentner

“I don’t have my guitar or anything. Plus, wouldn’t it be…weird?” Dill nodded at the bored-looking guards talking among themselves.

His father turned and glanced at the guards. He turned back with a gleam in his eye. “Do you think they think we’re not weird?”

That’s a fair point. Dill blushed. Might as well rip off the Band-Aid. He quickly and quietly sang the requested number a capella. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the guards stop conversing to listen.

“More,” his father said, applauding. “A new one.”

“I…haven’t really written any new ones for a while.”

“You’ve given up music?”

“Not exactly. I just write…different stuff now.”

His father’s face darkened. “Different stuff. God did not pour out music on your tongue so that you could sing the praises of men and whoredom.”

“I don’t write songs about whoredom. I don’t have even one song about whoredom.”

His father pointed at him. “Remember this. Christ is the way. The only way. Your path to salvation. And your music is your path to Christ. My path to Christ was the manifestation of faith signs. We lose our path to Christ; we lose our path to salvation. We lose our eternal reward. Got it?”

“Yeah. I got it.” Talking to his father made Dill feel like he was talking to a sentient brick wall that somehow knew about Jesus. “Okay, well, I have to go.”

His father’s face darkened further. “You just got here. Surely you didn’t come all this way just to spend a few minutes and go back home.”

“No. I hitched a ride with some friends who had to do some school shopping. They’re waiting out in the parking lot and it’s really hot. They were nice to let me come here for a few minutes.”

Dill’s father exhaled through his nose and stood. “Well, I guess you’d better go to them, then. Goodbye, Junior. Give your mother my love and tell her I’ll write soon.”

Dill stood. “I will.”

“Tell her I’ve been getting her letters.”


“When will I see you again?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“Then I’ll see you when God wills it. Go with Jesus, son.” Dill’s father raised his two fists and put them together side by side. Mark 16:18. Then he turned and walked away.

Dill released a long exhale as he left the building, as though he’d held his breath for the entire time he was inside to keep from inhaling whatever virulence the men imprisoned there harbored. He felt only slightly better without the dread of visiting his father. Now he just carried the original dread from that morning.

He reached the car. Lydia was saying something to Travis about how many calories a dragon would have to eat per day to be able to breathe fire. Her argument did not seem to be persuading him.

She looked up as Dill approached. “Oh thank God.” She started the car. “So, how’s your dad?”

“Weird,” Dill said. “He’s really weird.”

“Is—” Travis started to ask.

“I don’t really feel like talking about it.”

“Okay, jeez.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be rude,” Dill said. “Just…let’s go home.”

They were mostly silent on the return trip. Travis read his book. Lydia switched to a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds/Gun Club mix and tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm, still radiating good cheer. And why shouldn’t she. She’s had a great day.

Dill gazed out the window at the trees that lined both sides of the highway, the occasional handmade roadside cross, marking where someone had met their end, punctuating the unbroken wall of green. Three vultures circled something in the distance, soaring on updrafts. He tried to savor the remaining moments of the drive.

Last time school shopping together. The death of a little piece of my life. And I didn’t even get to enjoy it completely because of my crazy dad. Who keeps slowly getting crazier.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Lydia drive. The edges of her mouth. The way they turned up in a near-perpetual smirk. How her lips moved almost imperceptibly as she unconsciously sang along with the music.

Remember this. Write it on a handmade cross and plant it in your heart to mark this ending.

When they pulled into Forrestville, the shadows were long and the light looked like it was streaming through a pitcher of sweet tea. They dropped Travis off first.

Travis hopped out and bent down to look in the car, his hand on the roof. “Another year, y’all. See you tomorrow?”

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