The great old she-bear rose on two legs and sniffed the air. Moisture, a bit of charge in the atmosphere, meant a storm coming. But something else too. A scent that made her stop, stirred a memory, brought images of a connection. Perfumed, covered up as they do, but unmistakable: human sweat. A car came speeding around the curve on the road below the hillside where she perched, confirming her intuition. The teenage girl sat in the backseat, looking out the window. Yes, the she-bear thought. This is the one she had been waiting for.
I shoved my suitcase in the corner and laid the guitar case on the bed. I unlatched it and removed the Alvarez AD80SSB acoustic guitar. Rosewood with a sunburst finish. I caressed the neck, inspected the body for damage.
Not a blemish, thank God. Someday I’m going to play that beautiful thing in front of thousands. Until then I just have to keep practicing.
I strummed a chord. Out of tune, no surprise after the hot ride all day in the car trunk. I took a few minutes to tune it. A few quick scale exercises, to keep my fingers limber, and then I set it gently back in its case and headed out.
“Hey, Dad, I’m going for a walk,” I called as I opened the screen door.
“Good idea, Dani, take a look around,” came his voice from where he was unpacking in his bedroom. “How long will you be?”
“I don’t know. Forty-five minutes, maybe?”
“Make it half an hour, we have to be at Aunt Eunice’s at six.”
The screen door slammed behind me and I hopped down the steps. The rental house was gray clapboard, a scraggly dogwood out front, driveway just a bare spot in the lawn. A couple other rundown houses sat across the street, which didn’t look like it’d ever been repaved. Down a short hill the street ended in a T-intersection at the two-lane road the locals call a highway. A farming equipment store occupied one corner of the intersection, a gas station with a dinosaur on the sign the other.
Ryan whooped like a crazy person from somewhere in the trees behind the house, probably shooting zombies or something. He’s eight years old and some days I think I might kill him before he gets to nine. I could tell it wouldn’t be long until he went native here. I didn’t plan to let the same thing happen to me. I put in my ear buds and let the music soothe my frazzled brain while I walked: Janis Joplin’s Pearl, the best album ever recorded.
A quarter-mile down the highway I reached the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. A huge sign in the front window informed the world Mrs. Mac’s fried chicken was on sale in the deli. Next door were a furniture store and a pizza joint. There didn’t seem to be much action there so I kept walking. A little farther on I came to a row of stone buildings lining the road. The old downtown. There were actually some cool stores here. A music store with stringed instruments I didn’t recognize in the window. An antique shop. Something called the Adelaide Cultural Center.
I stopped in front of it. Wooden steps led up to the entrance. The place was closed but I stepped up to read a poster hanging on the door. Adelaide Music and Cultural Festival. August 14th-17th. There followed a long list of bands and musicians who would be playing. I skimmed a few of the names. The Mountain Home Boys. The Copeland Family. The Grave Mountain Singers. The Gin Soaked Boys. I blinked and made sure I’d read that last one right.
A white pickup truck drove up the street while I read, slowing down as it neared me but not stopping. Oh, God, this town was so tiny the inhabitants checked out strangers. How was I going to make it here a whole summer? Lots of time to practice the guitar, at least.
It’d been about fifteen minutes so I pulled the poster down, rolled it up, and headed back. The white pickup had stopped in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, its engine idling noisily. The truck was dirty and the letters on the tailgate read “C-H-V-Y.” I knew whoever was driving it was waiting for me because there were about a thousand empty spaces closer to the store he could have parked in. The window rolled down as I approached. I pulled out my ear buds and dug my hands in my pockets. The driver looked me over like a piece of produce.
He was maybe seventeen, short dark hair, wore a jean jacket over a white tee. But oh man his brown eyes, big and vulnerable, like a deer startled in the woods. “You’re new around here.” Wasn’t a question. One side of his mouth lifted in a crooked half smile. “You need a lift somewhere?”
“No, thank you. I’m just going behind that gas station.” I nodded toward the dinosaur sign.
“Oh, so you the one renting the old McCollum place back there. You and your brother and your daddy, right?”
News got around fast here. “Um, yeah. That’s right.”
“Name’s Austin.” He reached his hand out. “Austin Campbell.” I stepped up to the window and shook it. His grip was a little stronger than I was used to, his hand calloused.
He stared at me for several seconds and didn’t let go. I felt a little nervous because he wasn’t saying anything else. Was I going to have to stand in the parking lot holding his hand all night? “So, what’s your name?” he finally asked.
Oh, that’s why he wasn’t letting go. Why was I so cool in situations like this? “Dani. Dani Moser.”
He relaxed his grip and I put my hand back in my pocket. “Dani Moser,” he repeated. “I saw you checking out the Cultural Center. You like music?”
“Definitely. But not country music so much.”
Austin laughed, and I realized I’d said something stupid. “Country music’s from Nashville,” he said. “What we play here is something we call old-time. Or traditional. You might call it bluegrass. You interested in goin’?”
“All right, we’ll go Friday night,” Austin said. He started to roll up the window. Had I just arranged a date?
“Wait. What time will you pick me up?”
Austin laughed again. I liked the way it sounded. “Well, normally folks just meet in the parking lot of the Pig whenever.”
“The Piggly Wiggly. Since you’re new here, I guess I can walk you over. How ‘bout eight?”
“Eight. Right. Sounds good.”
“I’ll be seein’ you, Dani.” He shifted into gear and his pickup truck rolled off with a roar and a cloud of smoke. Well, the locals were friendly, at least one of them. And Austin was pretty cute. Maybe things were looking up.
Aunt Eunice’s big A-frame house was situated on the side of a mountain that’s ten miles from anywhere, even what passes for anywhere in those parts. She called the house Springbloom, and it was like an overstuffed museum packed with leather-bound books, National Geographics, garden tools, China dolls, trunks of old clothes, newspapers from the second World War, musical instruments from India, vegetable seeds, lost keys, buffalo skulls, and practically anything else you would never think to imagine. I swear every time I go there I find a room I’ve never seen before.
Even before entering the house, Ruskin bounded out to greet us. Ruskin was Aunt Eunice’s Irish terrier, and practically owned the house. We walked through the screen door into the kitchen, which was right in the front because it’s the most important room in the house, the heady smells of chopped parsley and frying onions filling our noses. It was exactly the way I remembered it. Bundles of dried plants and copper pots hung from the ceiling, bookcases filled with cookbooks and jam jars lined the walls, fruits and mushrooms and herbs sat piled in unmatched bowls on the island. The sink was overflowing with dishes and the oven on, just like always. Aunt Eunice looked up from a cutting board when she heard the door open.
“Oh my, Dani!” She dropped her paring knife and hurried to embrace me. I breathed in her scent, a mix of pipe tobacco and baking spices. Her gray hair was braided down her back, a bird feather stuck behind one ear. “My Lord, you’re a young woman now. How long has it been, do you think, since I saw you last?”
“Four years, Aunt Eunice.” But it didn’t matter, she was already on to Ryan.
“And the last time I saw you, Ryan, you were just a little boy, walking underneath the dining table between our legs at Thanksgiving! Look at you so grown up!” The instant she released him, my brother grunted something about a zombie infestation and shot off into the house. She didn’t seem to notice.
“How are you, Aunt Eunice?” my father asked her as she hugged him in turn.
“Better than ever, Jim. Sixty-one is the best year of my life. I know you don’t believe me but you’ll see when you get to my age. Now, don’t let me forget I’ve got an applesauce cake baking for you. Your favorite, when you were a boy.”
“Still is.” He grinned broadly, and for a second the worry creases in his forehead disappeared, his eyes lit up, and he looked the way he did when I was little. “I can’t believe you remembered from so long ago.”
“Jim, I couldn’t forget your favorite dessert if I tried. Although I do think you’ve lost some weight.” She gave my father’s belly an accusatory pat. “I suppose the situation with Deborah is affecting your appetite.” Aunt Eunice was not a big believer in mincing words.
Before Dad could answer, Ryan bounded back in the room with Ruskin a step behind him. The dog caught up to Ryan and started licking his hands. “Ruskin, stop that!” Aunt Eunice said. She pointed a finger at Ryan. “You must have been eating something and not washed your hands. You’d think I never fed this dog.”
“Aunt Eunice, can I take Ruskin on a walk?” Ryan asked.
“Of course, dear. But let me give you some lettuce to drop off at the turtle pen. Ruskin’ll show you where to go, you just follow him.” She kept talking while she rummaged through the refrigerator. “Last week I found the first turtle I’ve seen this year and brought him back.He was trying to cross that new highway near Batestown. Can you imagine how he wasn’t smashed with all those big trucks whizzing by there?”
She handed him the lettuce and my brother and Ruskin were gone with a slam of the screen door. “Now, Dani,” she said, looking me up and down. “Tonight we certainly must talk. You’re getting to the age when young people have interesting things to say. I hope you’re not one of those who only has an interest in boys, are you?”
I smiled a little self-consciously. “I don’t think so. Maybe a little bit.”
“Well, we’ll find out after dinner. Now, do something for me, if you would. Take this scissors and go cut some parsley in the back garden. You know what parsley looks like, right dear? And while you’re back there, get some chicken breasts for me out of the deep freezer. Four should be enough. But take care when you open the freezer door, I have a rattlesnake frozen in there.”
It took a moment for that to sink in but she’d already started chatting again with Dad before I could ask her about it. Apparently having a poisonous snake next to your Lean Cuisines is no big deal to Aunt Eunice. I set out to the back of the house with more than a little trepidation. I could practically hear the thing hissing as I approached.
It struck me: I was 700 miles from home in Minneapolis. Marooned in Adelaide, Arkansas, the middle of nowhere, the most isolated place you could imagine, until school started again. Two-and-a-half months without friends, television, restaurants, Mom, or civilization. So remote the only place we could seem to get cell service was our rental house. And after only an hour in town, I realized I might not even survive opening the deep freezer behind my Aunt Eunice’s house.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of The Ballad of Dani and Eli! Now read the rest of the book!