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Read the First 2 Chapters of Dress Codes for Small Towns

We can always count on Courtney Stevens to deliver a novel with as much humor as it has heart, and DRESS CODES FOR SMALL TOWNS is no different. Billie is the tomboy daughter of her small town’s preacher, and, along with her group of friends (lovingly referred to as the Hexagon), shows no interest in trying to fit in. Because people always expect that. Whether it’s all the way one way or another, the residents of Otters Holt fail to realize that everything—from love to gender to friendship—exists on a spectrum.

We fell in love with Billie, and we’re sure you will too!

Scroll down for a first look at DRESS CODES FOR SMALL TOWNS, and some adorable character art of the Hexagon from artist Alison Jane de Silva!

 

Before

NINE YEARS EARLIER

Three-hundred-year-old oaks were good for two things: hiding from playground fights and kingdom-watching. Billie McCaffrey climbed skyward and settled into a sprawling fork to observe her classmates. Over by the four square concrete slab, Janie Lee Miller sat cross-legged with her nose in a library copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Across the field, Woods Carrington was campaigning for a kickball game. Just below, two third-grade boys, Mash and Fifty, fought over a fourth-grade girl in blue bows and light-pink sunglasses. Other boys swung from the monkey bars while a herd of girls huddled, giggling and happy, around the adults. Their teacher, the center of the girls’ commotion, was dressed in a plain denim jumper and wore a bouquet of smiles. She produced from an ugly black handbag her newly awarded Corn Dolly. “Ooooh,” said the little girls. “Ahhhh,” said other teachers, who asked if they could hold the doll. They treated that decorated corn husk like Billie’s daddy treated a Bible.

Billie oooohed and ahhhhed like everyone else, her voice barely above a whisper. No one even glanced up.

Before the end of that school year, Billie had learned from her daddy that if she wanted friends, she couldn’t stay in tree forks. So she stopped climbing up, up and away, and befriended every boy in her grade by either brute force or voodoo charm. Woods, Billie’s new best friend, claimed it was her kickball skills. By God, that girl could kick a ball farther into Mr. Vilmer’s cornfield than anyone in the class. Even the most competitive boys loved her for it. The girls were a different story. They didn’t quite know what to do with her. And Billie didn’t know what to do with them.

Late summer brought water-gun fights, fishing at the quarry, and biking to and from the dam to skip rocks along the mirrored surface of Kentucky Lake. All this good fortune sparked a happy question from Woods.

“Hey, B, will you come to mine and Janie Lee’s wedding tomorrow? ”

Billie chomped on an apple they’d smuggled from Tawny Jacobs’s orchard. Juice ringed her lips. “Do I have to wear a dress? ”

“Nah,” Woods said. “You’re my best man.”

After passing the last bite to Woods and wiping her mouth with her shirtsleeve, she considered his request. Seemed fair. Seemed important. “Sounds good to me,” she said, even though it sounded worse than awful.

“Promise?” He looked concerned that she might go back to her tree-climbing, avoiding-everyone ways.

“Promise.”

She made the mistake of spit shaking. That night she asked her dad, “Will I go to hell if I break a promise?” He’d assured her that hell did not work that way. But she didn’t know which way hell worked yet, so she tore up all the notes she’d written asking Woods not to marry Janie Lee.

The next day, Woods Carrington stood behind one of those sprawling playground oaks and wed Janie Lee Miller with a grape Ring Pop and a peck on the lips.

Billie wore her cleanest jeans and stood by Woods’s side.

She looked up to her old perch and thought this friend thing was very hard.

 

Chapter One

I’m waffling on my tombstone inscription today. Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? R.I.P.: She found trouble. Or. Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? IN LOVING MEMORY: Trouble found her.

“This is a bad idea,” Janie Lee tells me. Which is her way of saying we’re going to get caught.

“We will not be contained by a grubby youth room and pointless rules,” I reply.

Janie Lee peers down the hallway. There’s no sign of my dad, but her expression indicates she’s voting for retreat. The dingy carpet beneath her feet is patterned with repeating arrows that all point the way back to our assigned sleeping room.

I tickle-poke her in the ribs. She giggles and leans into the tickle instead of away. “I’ll protect you,” I tell her.

That’s enough prompting for her to skitter down the hall with me—two handsome thieves on a wayward mission. We stand in front of a door labeled Youth Suite 201. It’s 3:12 a.m. Janie Lee is wearing a sweet pink sweatshirt, flannel pants, and UGGs, which always make me ugh. I am wearing a camo T-shirt, jeans I stole from Mash last weekend, and combat boots that I found at a local army surplus. Clothes I can sleep in. And, well, clothes I can live in.

Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? IN LOVING MEMORY: She died in her boots.

I perform the prearranged triple knock.

Davey props open the door, and behind him the rest of our boys offer various greetings. He’s the newest of the gang and we’re all still learning him. There’s an awkward pause while we work out whether we’re supposed to fist-bump or shoulder-punch or hug. I up-nod, and that seems to be acceptable enough for him to duplicate.

I turn my attention to the rest of the room. I’ve just noticed that Einstein the Whiteboard is leaning against the minifridge when something hits me. It’s Woods, tackling me to the decades-old carpet.

“Hello to you, too,” I say from beneath him.

He licks my face like a Saint Bernard and then pretends to do an elaborate wrestling move that I don’t evade. (Even though I could.) Without warning, a two-person dog pile becomes a six-person dog pile. Davey hesitates, then lands near the top. He must be learning us a little. Boys really are such affectionate assholes. I am crushed at the bottom and Janie Lee is half-balanced on top of Davey’s back.

“Love sandwich,” she mouths at me.

It is. It’s not. It’s more. Labeling and limiting something as big as us feels somewhat impossible, but usually we call ourselves the Hexagon. On the account that sixsome sounds kinky and stupid.

“Up! We’re crushing Billie,” Woods says, because he’s always directing traffic.

Fifty farts in Davey’s face in a momentous fashion, and just like that, the jokes begin and the dog pile ends, boys sprawling onto the two couches as if it never happened. I digest the scene as I slouch against the door. Boys. My boys. I’ve been collecting them like baseball cards since third grade.

Woods. He’s not pretty, but he’s stark and golden and green like a cornfield under noon sunlight. Tennis shoes; low-cut, grass-stained socks; ropey calf muscles; blond leg hair; khaki shorts; aqua polo; and an unmatching St. Louis Cardinals hat tamping down floofy blondish-brown curls: he is these things. He is so much more. I know exactly what he’ll look like in thirty years when he’s sitting on our porch drinking peppermint tea.

Davey, elfin and punkish in smeared eyeliner, sits next to his cousin Mash, who looks nothing much like him. Fifty always appears a bit smarmy, and tonight is no exception. His dark hair is oily and he hasn’t shaved in a week. Janie Lee sits slightly apart, cross-legged and petite in a papasan chair. She takes up about as much room as a ghost. Then me. Knees up. Chin up. Happy. Taking their mischief like the gift that it is.

Some lock-ins are for staying up all night and playing shit-tastic games. This one is for parental convenience. The youth group is cleaning up Vilmer’s Barn tomorrow—early prep for the upcoming Harvest Festival—and Dad didn’t want to run a shuttle at six a.m. Tyson Vilmer, barn owner, patriarch of Otters Holt, grandfather of Mash and Davey, will be there waiting with his enormous smile and incredible enthusiasm. Despite the fact that we were supposed to be in separate rooms and asleep by two a.m., I am pretty damn excited to help. Two a.m. bedtime was wishful thinking on my father’s part. We are not true hellcats, but the Hexagon is particularly bad at supposed to when we’re all under one roof.

The other four can’t decide who will open the meeting: Woods or me.

I copy Dad’s southern drawl and say, “Let’s start with glads, sads, and sorries and then say a prayer.” They all laugh, except for Davey, who hasn’t been to enough Wednesday night Bible studies to get the joke. I gesture to the writing on Einstein the Whiteboard. “Dudes and Dudette, I predict this lock-in ends poorly.”

Woods will hear nothing of my prophecy. Einstein is among Woods’s favorite things on the planet—a medium-sized board that technically belongs to the youth group but practically belongs to him. Woods developed leadership skills in utero, and he thinks in dry-erase bullet points. Currently, Einstein says: THINGS TO DO WITH A CHURCH MICROWAVE. Five bullets follow, and most of them look like a one-way trip to a stark-raving Brother Scott McCaffrey, my father.

In the bottom corner, someone has drawn a sketch of a Corn Dolly being lifted on high by a stick figure. They’ve labeled the stick figure Billie McCaffrey, which makes me label them all idiots. The joke is so old it has wrinkles.

A Corn Dolly is only a corn husk that has been folded and tucked and tied into the shape of a doll. In the town of Otters Holt, the mayor handpicks this husk on the morning of the Harvest Festival, which is an annual event the town treats like Christmas-meets-the-Resurrection. The dolly is then assembled and bestowed during the middle of the Sadie Hawkins dance to the most deserving woman of the year.

Hence, the joke.

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I say, slow clapping.

Woods is positive THINGS TO DO WITH A CHURCH MICROWAVE is suitable 3:15 a.m. material. “You say ends badly. I say ends brilliantly,” he says.

Fifty has an opinion on the matter. “The only thing farfetched is Billie actually winning a Corn Dolly.” He laughs at himself. Too hard. We are often forced to forgive this failing since his facial hair allows him a fake ID, which allows us the beer that comes along with that privilege.

I’m eye-rolling. “You asshole.” Just because it’s true doesn’t mean he needs to say it.

Fifty stands up as if to challenge me while Janie Lee buries her face in the nearest pillow and reminds us that teenagers don’t, won’t ever win the Corn Dolly—Gloria Nix, twenty-three, was the youngest.

I wave Fifty forward with both hands, ready to wrestle him down.

“Back to Einstein,” Woods announces before Fifty and I go for a real row. This may have happened a time or two in the past.

“Back to Einstein,” everyone, including Fifty, choruses. The merriment rises to previous levels.

“This microwave thing.” I point to the first bullet point: Cook Pineapple Bob. “I do like it.”

Woods is beaming proudly. “He’s had a good life.”

I agree. Pineapple Bob is, well, a pineapple. Frozen these three years in the youth fridge. Named by yours truly.

“We’ll burn down the youth room,” Davey replies. He doesn’t say it in a distressed way. It’s more of an FYI. Like he’s maybe done something like this before. I’ll light fire to that backstory eventually and smoke out some truth, but right now, it’s all Bob, all the time.

The youth room microwave is from the eighties, black as coal, and built like a tank. No doubt donated by some senior church member who moved to assisted living. Its smell is a mix of baked beans, ramen noodles, and burnt popcorn (with the door closed). So if we properly execute bullet point number three (Melt 50 Starlight Mints), its condition will drastically improve.

Janie Lee laughs nervously, her UGGs bouncing against the wicker of the papasan. She’s sipping hard on some vodka–wine cooler concoction Fifty has made. I give her a little fist-bump love for showing initiative. On both the rebellious drinking and the microwave. She doesn’t offer me a drink. I don’t need alcohol; I get drunk on schemes.

We begin.

The first three steps are disappointing. Pineapple Bob pops pretty loudly, as does the handful of Monopoly houses and hotels we’ve stolen from the game closet. The Starlight Mints have to be scraped off the microwave walls. It’s more eventful when Mash pukes up wine cooler on a half-eaten bag of Twizzlers.

“Come on, man,” Fifty says. “I wasn’t done with those.”

“You okay?” Janie Lee comforts Mash, which is pointless. Every group has a hurler: he is our hurler. He is used to puking. She is used to babying him. They are a very good team.

“Shhhhh with the upchucking,” Woods orders.

Woods and I turn our attention to step four, which is seeing How Many Peeps Is Too Many Peeps? The answer: more than forty. It’s messy and delightful.

Woods and I clean, reload, and move on to bullet five. Fifty moves on to more vodka. Typical. Step five involves boiling a used sock—Woods’s, because he has the worst-smelling feet—in Dad’s newly purchased World’s Best Preacher mug. Two minutes in, we’ve got gym smell and no action. It’s a little anticlimactic to be bullet five.

As we watch the mug-and-sock do its nothing, Woods says, “In basically three hours we have to be in the barn.”

Fifty lifts his head from a plank position on the floor and says, “In three hours, we could be walking Vilmer’s Beam.” This makes Mash throw a blanket over his own head. Everyone is tired of hearing Fifty bellow about walking the loft beam in Vilmer’s Barn. It was a dumb dare in fifth grade. We’re seniors. We’re over it.

I say, “I hate mornin—” and the sock catches on fire.

“Heck, yeah!” Mash says, too loud, and then laughs.

Janie Lee says, “The other room!” Because there is a group of our fellow youth snoozing in Youth Suite 202.

The fire is small—barely more than a magnifying-glass-on-grass sort of spark—and entirely worth the four steps that came before it.

“Hot cup of sock, good sir?” I ask in a British accent.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Woods says, reaching for the microwave door.

Davey sits bolt upright. “Do not—!”

The moment Woods opens the door, the small fire becomes a larger one. The mug rockets out of the microwave and explodes on the carpet. The fire—well, most of the fire—lands on a fuzzy blanket. The flames poof. Woods snatches the other sock—the one whose mate is now ablaze—and beats at the fire. He only fans the flames.

We are all screaming. There is more fire. More sparks. Both shoot out of the microwave; the antique appliance dismounts the counter and lands on the carpet with an explosive bang.

I imagine my father sitting up down the hall, scratching his head, lifting his nose toward the ceiling, sniffing. A yell gathers in his throat.

“Give me something to beat it out!” I shout, and Mash laughs so hard that he vomits again.

“Puke on the fire, man,” Fifty says.

Davey shucks his jacket; Janie runs into the bathroom and returns with a damp towel. The jacket is working but not fast enough. Janie Lee throws the towel over the whole mess in a big Ta-da-I-will-fix-this fashion.

The fire is suddenly enormous.

“Was that the towel off the f loor?” demands Woods as Davey rolls his eyes and says, “I’m calling 911.”

Janie Lee shrinks from Woods’s tone, nodding furiously. There’s commotion in the hallway. The counter, where the microwave previously sat, is also on fire. The alarm begins a high-pitched wail and the sprinklers descend from the ceiling as if they are Jesus in the second coming. We are all getting soaked as Woods yells, “We used that towel to mop up vodka!”

It’s hard to tell what is fire and what is smoke and what is microwave, but incredibly, I see the toe of the sock that started it all. Dad is going to kill me.

“Time to peace out,” Davey says, gesturing toward the exit.

The fire alarm continues to pierce our eardrums. Woods throws open the door to the hallway. “Abandon ship!” he shouts gallantly. Always directing traffic. He’s glistening with sweat. We all are, but he’s glorying in it.

Mash throws last week’s bulletin onto the fire before heading to the hallway. Fifty gives the wall a pound and yells, “Wakey, wakey. Church’s on fire.” Davey issues me a long look. He’s got some I told you so in those eyes. I’ve got some I know, I know in mine.

I grab Janie Lee in her sweet pink sweatshirt and UGGs and drag her behind me into the hall. She’s as soaked as the rest of us and not wearing a bra, and that’s gonna be a problem when we hit cool autumn air.

I think: I didn’t mean for all this to happen. I also think: I effing love Einstein the Whiteboard adventures. I have a moment of true fear when Woods plunges back inside the youth room. Before I even have time to process this, he reappears, coughing, and says, “Help me, Billie.” He darts into the smoky room again.

In I go to rescue Woods, who wants to save his precious whiteboard. Einstein is too near the fire. The edge is already melted, and I assume too hot to touch. “I’ll get you another one,” I promise him.

Not what he wants to hear. I drag Woods away and shove him toward the back stairs.

Around us, kids are evacuating. They’re carrying phones and sleeping bags and pillow pets. Two sixth graders are getting on the elevators while Fifty screams at them, “Take the stairs! Didn’t you learn anything in kindergarten?” A very familiar form is swimming upstream against the evacuees: Brother Scott McCaffrey. My tired and scared and angry father frantically counts everyone he sees. He flings opens doors, yells, moves to the next room. Precise words are impossible to hear over the fire alarm. But as I watch him check Youth Suite 201, I see he’s putting two and two together.

Likely conclusion: where there’s smoke, there’s Billie.

Janie Lee and I quick-walk toward the exit. She pulls me against her and says right in my ear, so I hear it over the noise, “Billie, I think maybe I’m in love with Woods!”

“Jesus,” I say, and hope it counts as a multipurpose prayer.

 

Chapter 2

Fire trucks arrive at the curb—sirens blazing, ready to dispense water and large-coated men. Maybe the firefighters can put Dad out after they finish with the church. He’s doing a roll call from his clipboard, blazing brighter than any flame we have made. Everyone is wet, amped, and accounted for. A couple of the junior high–ers are crying.

My crew has their butts on the asphalt, their backs against the church van. Janie Lee’s pressed against me, and for once and only once I wish she’d give me space. She says, “I left my glasses in the bathroom.”

“You’ll get them back,” I tell her, avoiding any form of eye contact.

Within twenty minutes, it’s clear that the church will remain standing. But within those smoking, flaming, hosing minutes, the deacons have arrived. Hands are on hip replacements. Judgment is rampant. I overhear:

“Those youth can’t be trusted.”

“The preacher’s daughter is the worst.”

“I wonder if he’ll do anything this time.”

“He’ll have to.”

Dad walks purposefully toward the Hexagon, eyes blazing, knuckles white against the clipboard. He’s about to crank it up and let us have it when his phone rings. The cell is ancient, has a ringer that rivals the fire alarm. He recognizes the number, and clearly expects whoever it is to yell at him about the fire. With a sigh and a warning look at us, he jams a finger in his ear and retreats.

“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Say that again; I can’t hear you. Oh, I see. Oh.” Dad stops, his body stiffening. “I’m sorry. I’ll have him call. Yes, him too.”

He flips the phone closed—all the fight from his face morphed into sorrow. September in the South is still hot, but Dad shivers. He pinches the bridge of his nose and doesn’t move. Woods grips my right elbow; Janie Lee leaves fingerprints on my left arm. Something worse than the church flambé has just happened.

He calls Mash and Davey over. A private conversation ensues that leaves them hugging and Mash indignant. “But Big T was just . . .” We watch Mash deflate like a balloon, words gone.

Dad gathers the rest of the group and explains the tragic facts: Tyson Vilmer had a massive heart attack and ran off to meet the Lord while we were blowing up a sock. Without a word, with most everyone choking back tears, we link hands and say prayers of comfort for the Vilmer family.

My Grandy once said, When that sweet old coot goes, he’ll take all of Otters Holt with him. I believed her then. I believe her now. Tyson Vilmer’s life touched everyone who has ever lived and breathed Otters Holt air. A small-town butterfly effect.

Big T had one son, Harold, and one daughter, Hattie. Hattie moved away to Nashville, married, had Davey, separated, and just recently moved back in with her dad. Mash’s parents have a better story. Harold went on a mission trip and fell in love with a black woman. There were no other interracial couples in Otters Holt, still aren’t, but Tyson Vilmer walked his gorgeous daughter-in-law, Jeanelle, down the aisle and loved her like his own. That was eighteen years ago, and the first wedding my dad ever officiated. Jeanelle has since been awarded a Corn Dolly, 2012. It doesn’t sound like much to the rest of the world, but that was groundbreaking for Otters Holt.

I call Grandy. She is awake, voice cloudy and broken. Someone on the telephone chain reached her first. “Dad just told us about Big T,” I say. She’s crying the way old people do, reserved, composed. She’s the type to use a Kleenex or a handkerchief instead of her sleeve. I say, “I just wanted to tell you I love you.” We hang up so I can check on Davey and she can bake a casserole for the Vilmer family.

“This blows.” Fifty’s bluntness is appropriate for once.

Janie Lee and Woods automatically take their places at Mash’s side. We’ve done death before. My granddad. Fifty’s aunt. Woods’s mom lost a baby five years ago. We’ve learned how to huddle up like a football team to tackle the shit out of grief.

I leech myself to Davey without actually touching him. I tell him I’m incredibly sorry about Big T. I also admit sorry is a lackluster word. We stare at a nub of moon, him presumably thinking of Big T, me thinking of Big T and everything else. This night. The fire. The ramifications. Janie Lee’s impromptu confession. The ramifications. Emotions lap me, round and round.

I stop thinking because Janie Lee scoots next to me. “I saw Big T yesterday. He gave me a peppermint.”

“Me too,” Woods says, joining us.

Mash says, “He loved peppermints,” even though we know.

After Dad handles the immediate red tape with the deacons and fire chief, we trudge mournfully to the church van and Dad drives toward the Vilmer farm in near silence. Dayold McDonald’s and smoke smells become our burden to bear for the next ten minutes.

I’m sidesaddling the captain’s seat across from Dad. He’s wearing the blank expression of prayer. Poor Mash has his head on Janie Lee’s flannel lap; her fingers weave and love their way around his ears and scalp and braids. Davey has the whole back row. He’s texting someone. Mash spent the first years of his life riding on his granddad’s shoulders. I wonder where Davey fits into that equation. Fifty sobers up in the middle, and Woods—Woods tries to decide whether he can tell a story yet. I know this because our telepathy isn’t all that miraculous. His eyes are the windows of his brain. I nod, agreeing that it’s appropriate to speak.

“You know . . .” Woods begins. He tells four, maybe five, tales about Tyson Vilmer while Dad navigates the curves on Stoney Temple Road. Stories we all know. Woods is one of those people who make you hang on their recycled words. By the end of his yarns, Mash is sitting upright, adding details, Dad has stopped sucking air through his front teeth, and Janie Lee touches Woods’s shoulder in thanks. Her hand lingers there for a three count and lands on my elbow, sticking like glue. Davey’s still texting, still glazed, still apart. Fifty’s asleep.

And as I look out over my Hexagon . . . I’m . . . well, I’m in love with them all. Death can muddle beliefs and raise questions, but it makes love crystal clear.

We roll into Mash’s driveway at four thirty a.m., because that’s where the family has gathered. Already cars and trucks are parked willy-nilly. Church members march antlike in and out of the farmhouse wearing red-rimmed eyes and ratty robes, delivering frozen casseroles—prepared for occasions like this—and promises of support. Each person bows in tearful sympathy as Mash and Davey make their way to the screen door. Mash’s back hitches with a deep breath. He goes inside. We all follow and take our turns sorrying the Vilmers and mustering brave faces. Janie Lee, Woods, Fifty, and I park ourselves in Mash’s room and poke each other to stay awake, unsure of what Davey and Mash might need upon return from the living room. The boys arrive an hour later, noses running, saying their parents said we should all try and rest. The first rays of pink morning light peek through the mini-blinds like a watercolor painting streaking the hardwood.

“Thanks for staying,” Mash says.

But he knows there is nowhere else we’d rather be.

We fall asleep in a big pile on the floor. When I wake around noon, I’m Woods’s little spoon and Janie Lee’s big spoon. Mash and Davey are back-to-back and snoring heavily. Fifty has moved to the bed. I have to pee, but I hold it for an hour, not wanting to wake anyone else. For most of that hour, I cry and chat with God on three grievances: death, forgiveness, and jealousy. Prayer is my live journal. It’s the one place I don’t ever have to be a rock star about life. I figure if God made my tear ducts, He has to deal with me using them. I wrap up with a final promise. “And if you could help me with the Janie Lee problem and the church fire, I’ll never get that stupid with Einstein again.”

When everyone is awake, we take turns going home to change our smoky pajamas and shower off last night’s crazy.

By luck, Janie Lee and I return to Mash’s driveway at the same time. She’s replaced the lost bra and looks surprisingly sexy in sweats. I can tell she’s gotten ready in a hurry. No jewelry. No makeup. She was probably trying to run out the door before her mom could task her with hours at Bleach, the coin Laundromat they manage.

“You tell your mom about the fire?” I ask, expecting a no. It’s not that the Millers aren’t understanding people; it’s that, well, setting a church ablaze is just the sort of thing one would expect from a Miller. Her dad has been in and out of jail, her mom has a reputation for selling powders that aren’t of the washing variety, and her brother got a one-way ticket to the military, courtesy of Judge Cox.

But she nods. “Oh, she already knew. Heard it from Conner, who heard it from Johnny, who heard it from his aunt Miriam.”

Unsurprising. I’m sure people picked up their phones last night and opened conversations with, “I just called to let you know Tyson Vilmer died,” and closed with, “Did you hear Community Church had a fire in the youth room?” And they likely had additional commentary.

“She angry?” I ask.

“She’s the usual. Eleven months, B. Eleven more months.”

The usual means Mrs. Miller wants to know how much it will cost and if it will affect “the family business.” Eleven months is the amount of time until Janie Lee cracks all the rearview mirrors when she blows out of Otters Holt.

She’s been keeping a countdown since before she could count.

Janie Lee and I have many similarities: A love of art and music. BBC shows and reruns of anything with Betty White. Neither of us is scared of spiders, and we both love the incessant humming of cicadas in a plague year. She’d kill a whole day lying beside me in the grass, face up to the sky, sun beaming down. But Janie Lee will not be lying in that tall bluegrass eleven months from now, because she does not share my love of our hometown. While I say, “I’m from Otters Holt,” she says, “I’m from Western Kentucky.” That’s as proud as she gets.

Janie Lee pulls me into the mother of all side hugs. She smells much better than the last time she side-hugged me.

“I’ll fix this church stuff. Somehow,” I tell her.

She believes me and says, “Last night seems like a million years ago.”

Two million.

She starts to say something else, but Davey reappears in a very non–Otters Holt, very new, and very shiny black Audi R8. Whoever is driving doesn’t get out or put the car in park. Davey slinks from the passenger side, eyeliner reapplied, one crumpled band shirt swapped out for the next. We wait on him to saunter over before we head to Mash’s room. Neither of us asks after the Audi, but I’m dying to. Sweet ride of Satan, it’s beautiful.

Fifty’s practically licking the windowpane when we all get inside. “Nice wheels.”

Davey coughs up a name. “Thomas.”

“Thomas,” Fifty mouths behind Davey’s back. He puckers his lips and makes a kissing noise.

Huh, maybe, I think. They could be a thing. Then again, Fifty thinks everyone will bag anyone.

Woods removes his fingers from the mini-blinds. Steps away from the window and falls on Mash’s bed. “Five things to do with an Audi,” he says in his rule-the-world way.

“Five things to do in an Audi,” Fifty corrects.

“Ah, Einstein,” Janie Lee says nostalgically.

“He’ll rise again.” Woods’s imperial face says, After the funeral, people, after the funeral.

Fifty claps Mash on the shoulder and pushes him sideways onto the bed. Fifty has four older brothers. Shoving people around is his love language. Except then he adds, “You know, I hate to say it, but your granddad dying saved our ass.”

We stare slack-jawed at Fifty.

“What?” Fifty says. “You’re all thinking it too.”

Nope. I’m thinking: Big T was an adult I genuinely liked. I’m thinking: He’s always held off the wolves from Brother Scott McCaffrey and his wayward daughter. With Tyson alive, this fire thing would have been a nonissue. I’m thinking: With Tyson dead, Dad could face serious consequences from my actions. Again.

Woods tells Fifty to shut it so no one else has to, and Fifty is maybe red-cheeked, but it’s hard to tell with all that facial hair. “I’m not glad he’s dead,” he corrects. “Mash knows that.”

He shoves Mash again. Mash shoves back. They’re fine.

Davey drops his phone in the back pocket of his jeans, rejoins the conversation. “Oh, we know what you meant.” It comes out more like, We know who you are.

Davey’s texting habits distract me. Was his last text—the one right before he stowed his phone—to Audi Thomas? Is that who Davey texts when the rest of us don’t need to text anyone because we are all there? He must have a whole group of friends back in Nashville. They must love him in a way we’re only scratching at, and I wonder if it’s lonely to be with us instead of them.

For the rest of the day, we distract Mash and Davey with cards, food, and more Best of Tyson Vilmer stories. The time he played Wiffle ball, put a pie in Tawny Jacobs’s face, rode Mash on the tractor, gave the library all his books. The time he did everything and anything needed. We even drive to the edge of town and try to sit mournfully beneath the Molly the Corn Dolly statue. Frankly, it’s difficult to sit mournfully beside a forty-foot-tall blazing-yellow roadside attraction. So we play a few rounds of Hacky Sack and brag to intermittent tourists that Mash and Davey’s granddad is the one who built Molly the Corn Dolly. The tourists seem suitably impressed.

In late afternoon, we’re back in Mash’s room when Jeanelle leans through the doorway. There’s a poker game and a box of chicken in the center of our circle. We quiet down. “If you’re willing”—she dabs her eyes with a Kleenex—“Harold would appreciate you helping out with the funeral. Big T wrote down what he wanted in the King James. You’re all a part.”

There are two things every old person in Otters Holt has: a King James with “arrangements” and a list of Corn Dolly winners taped to the fridge.

Jeanelle shifts a deep-pink hair wrap and gathers her thoughts. Even now, when she is so clearly sad, she wears a touch of pink eye shadow that makes her face look thirty instead of forty.

She starts assigning tasks. “Janie Lee and Woods, will you do your thing?”

Their thing is a musical combo: violin, and piano and vocals. They’ve been performing together since Janie Lee picked up a bow in fourth grade. I hate them a little when they play. I can sing; they bend notes to their whims and instruments to their wants.

“He has the rest of you as pallbearers,” Jeanelle tells us.

We nod, as if this is expected.

We do the other expected things too. Visitation. Sad hearts. More sleeping piles.

The morning of the funeral, I shower at my house and ask Mom about dress codes. I’ve been to dozens of funerals—a terrible by-product of having a minister as a father. They are the one time I venture into the recesses of my closet and emerge with one of the two black dresses I own. But today, I’m thinking black pants are the ticket.

“I can wear this?” I point to the clothes laid out on my bed. I’m still walking softly because of the fire.

Mom fastens pearls behind her neck and checks her nail polish after the clasping. That leaves her to survey my room.

“Yes to the clothes. No to your boots. And please move this stuff to the garage before your dad comes back here.”

My room is totally undone. A half-carved wooden elephant head is on my desk. Eight canvases lean in the corner. Another four are on the floor. The paints and dirty brown cup of water are out too. They’re from Thursday night. A whirlwind of clothes from this weekend’s comings and goings threatens to swallow the clothes I’ve laid out.

I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I’m wearing the boots.

The Audi is in the parking lot when I get out of my parents’ minivan at the funeral home. While I’m staring, the car produces Thomas and Davey from its small bowels. Audi Thomas is black—a notable feature in our lily-white-except-for-Mash-and-Jeanelle town—and built like one of those guys who drinks three too many protein shakes a day. He also has the confident stride of someone who has all his daddy’s credit cards in his wallet. Davey’s lanky and lean beside him. They walk into the funeral home wearing identical suits and ties except for the difference between navy and steel gray.

Even from behind, Davey appears changed. Back straight as a ruler. Hands buried in his pockets like a politician’s son. His shoes are high gloss.

Inside, Hattie pins a white rose to Davey’s suit coat and then pins one to my shirt. I find my place among the other pallbearers. Mom clarified this morning that I was an honorary pallbearer—“Girls do not carry caskets,” she had said. Honorary my ass. I stand with Davey, Thomas, Mash, Fifty, and three other men from church, hoping all these guys ate their Wheaties, because Tyson Vilmer was a Great Pyrenees of a man. When you pick up a casket, you feel the weight of it very differently than you think you will. We carry it. It carries us. The real weight is carrying each other.

Death is a superhuman burden.

When Tyson Vilmer is front and center, where he belongs, all the pallbearers but me sit in a reserved section. I slide in next to Grandy. Her velvet hand with its spidery blue veins lands in mine. I let her cling. I even cling back when Woods and Janie Lee shred the entire funeral home with “A Satisfied Mind” followed by “How Great Thou Art.

Then Dad shreds it with his eulogy. A good thing because of the conversation I had with Janie Lee this morning:

“You see the paper?” she asked.

I hadn’t.

“There was a full page about Big T and . . .” She drew a banner with her hand. “‘Community Church Aflame,’” followed by a big fat pause.

“‘Community Church Aflame’ and . . .”

“And . . . ‘Local Minister Sleeps Through Blaze.’”

I’m vexed. “That’s not even true.”

Truth hardly played a part in the local news.

Now Dad’s telling a story about the Harvest Festival, and how without Tyson’s support this will likely be its last year. Our spines bend like dying flowers. The congregation responds. Grief knocks into grief. No one can imagine Otters Holt without the Harvest Festival. Without Tyson. Least of all my tear-streaked father.

I look away from him and notice three things. A) Janie Lee has her pinkie on Woods’s knee; B) Davey has his head on Thomas’s big-ass Thor shoulder; and C) there’s a muscular man looking like Davey will in thirty years, who is practically sitting on top of Davey’s mom. She is not sad; she’s furious.

And then I manhandle the casket to the car and the casket to the earth and say my final good-bye. “Thank you, you sweet old coot.” Tyson Vilmer. b. 1938.—d. 2017. Beloved by Otters Holt. (Not the official inscription, but I’m close.)

Dad catches my eye, narrows his expression. I still remember that you blew up the youth room.

No worries, Brother Scott. So do I.

 

Meet the Hexagon

The Hexagon is the name that Billie’s close group of friends goes by, six individuals way too unique for their small southern town. Click here to view the picture full size, and you can also check out solo art for all the characters!

Billie, Woods, Janie Lee, Davey, Mash, and Fifty—the gang’s all here.

 

About Dress Codes for Small Towns

 

As the tomboy daughter of the town’s preacher, Billie McCaffrey has always struggled with fitting the mold of what everyone says she should be. She’d rather wear sweats, build furniture, and get into trouble with her solid group of friends: Woods, Mash, Davey, Fifty, and Janie Lee.

But when Janie Lee confesses to Billie that she’s in love with Woods, Billie’s filled with a nagging sadness as she realizes that she is also in love with Woods…and maybe with Janie Lee, too.

Always considered “one of the guys,” Billie doesn’t want anyone slapping a label on her sexuality before she can understand it herself. So she keeps her conflicting feelings to herself, for fear of ruining the group dynamic. Except it’s not just about keeping the peace, it’s about understanding love on her terms—this thing that has always been defined as a boy and a girl falling in love and living happily ever after. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple.

 


What do you think about the Hexagon? Are you as excited for the rest of this group’s small town struggle as we are? Drop a comment below!