Authors: Tiffany Quay Tyson
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For Judy and Jerry Tyson, who raised me in a home filled with books
Thanks to Andrea Dupree, Michael Henry, and everyone at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I owe so much to William Haywood Henderson, an extraordinary reader, teacher, and friend. Thanks also to Nick Arvin, Catherine Hope, Jennifer Itell, Greg Jalbert, Shana Kelly, Amanda Rea, Scott Sawyer, Gary Schanbacher, Emily Sinclair, and other careful readers who gave me more of their time and wisdom than I deserve. Thanks to Corinna Robbins for allowing me to use her mountain home as a writing sanctuary. And thanks to the members of Denver Salon for all the support, laughter, friendship, and wine.
I am so grateful to Sandra Bond for her unflagging support of this book and this author. Thanks to Toni Kirkpatrick for believing in this book, and for providing the feedback that made it better. And thanks to Jennifer Letwack, Eliani Torres, and everyone at Thomas Dunne Books.
Finally, to John, who knew I was a writer and married me anyway, I love you.
The preacher's wife delivered the crumpled note early that morning.
Come home. I must leave. Your father is dying. Your brother is not able
. The woman, who was balancing a grimy toddler on one jutted hip, asked Melody if there was anything she could do to help. Melody asked about a phone. The woman used her hand to wipe a streak of snot from the toddler's upper lip and told Melody the church office would be unlocked at eight. By quarter after, Melody perched on the corner of a polished wooden desk and dialed her childhood home.
Except for a row of yarn-woven God's eyes and a stack of Jesus pamphlets, there was not much about the office that marked it as religious. The fire-and-brimstone, hand-to-God preachers of Melody's youth had retired. Nowadays, churches were led by slick men in designer suits, who preached more often about prosperity than about eternal damnation.
Against her ear, the phone rang and rang. No one hurried to pick up a phone in her house. Mama could very well be sitting right next to the phone, painting her fingernails bright red, and saying, as she always did:
A ringing phone does not demand urgency on
Daddy would still be sleeping. Bobby could be anywhere.
Years earlier, Melody had bought her parents an answering machine, thinking it would be the perfect gift. “Now you can just let it go to the machine and call people back whenever you feel like it,” Melody told them. “Oh, my,” her mother said. “I hope you kept the receipt. I can't have people calling and getting a machine. It's just so tacky.” What Melody wouldn't give for a bit of tacky right now.
“Well, hell's bells.” She wanted to say something stronger, but manners or superstition prevented her from swearing in a church, even though she was alone and it was just the office, and even though she'd stopped believing in God. Oh, she still believed it was possible God existed, but she didn't believe he cared. She didn't believe anyone was going to answer her phone call, either. She pulled the phone from her ear and nearly had it back in its cradle when she heard her brother's voice. Bobby shouted, “Hello? Hello!”
“Hey there.” Melody tried to remember the last time she'd actually spoken to Bobby. “What's going on? Mama called.”
“When are you coming home?”
She coiled the phone cord around her finger. “I'm not sure. Can you tell me what's going on with Daddy?” The cord was sticky, the victim of an exploding soda or some kid with jam-coated hands. She wiped her finger on the hem of her T-shirt. “Is Daddy around? Maybe I could just talk to him directly.”
Bobby barked a harsh laugh into Melody's ear. “Oh, he's around, all right. He's around.” Melody was supposed to be patient with Bobby. Since the baptism, he'd been a little off. It was like his brain got switched to a channel that didn't come in clear for anyone else.
“Why don't you run and get him?” She kept her voice as even and pleasant as she could.
“I thought you were home coming, home coming, coming home.” Ah yes, there it was, not quite a stutter, but a vocal tic that was the most visible (or audible) reminder of Bobby's baptism.
“I will,” she said. “I just want to talk to Daddy for a minute. Can you fetch him for me?”
Bobby huffed. “Well, he can't talk. He's hooked up to tubes. Phone won't far, far, far reach. Reach that far.”
“Tubes? What sort of tubes?”
A loud clattering echoed through the line. She heard Bobby's voice, distant but still clear enough. “I'm checking. I'm trying to find out.”
“Daddy wants to know when you're coming home.”
Melody sighed and made a request of last resort. “Okay, then, let me talk to Mama. Can you just put Mama on the phone?”
Bobby said Mama had disappeared, gone that very morning. Melody was annoyed but not surprised. Mama had a long history of leaving for days or weeks at a time.
“I don't suppose she said where she was headed this time, did she?”
“She doesn't ever,” Bobby said. “You know that, Sissy.” He hadn't called her Sissy since they were very young. Melody softened. He was still her little brother.
“I'll be there tomorrow,” she promised. “I'll get there as early as I can.” She hung up the sticky phone and headed out into the rising heat.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A Christian music festival is no different from any other music festival except there are more young children, fewer tattoos and halter tops on display, and no alcohol for sale. At nine in the morning, however, there was nothing about the festival grounds, a scrubby field behind the Holy Redeemer Baptist Church just outside Memphis, that set it apart from any of the dozens of weekend music festivals being held in cities across America. Melody meandered a bit, not ready to break the news to her bandmates that she wouldn't be traveling on with them to Orlando. The girls would be furious. There was no way they would find another keyboardist who could harmonize on such short notice. They'd have to cancel the gig. They were scheduled to perform tonight and Melody decided that would be her final performance with Shout with Joy.
She strolled past the shuttered booths that flanked the grounds. Later, these booths would offer up greasy corn dogs, fried Twinkies, chicken on a stick, cherry lemonade. Even now, the scent of fried dough and sugar hung in the air along with citronella and diesel fumes. Melody was hungry. She was always hungry. Food was the last temptation of the Christian musician, and Melody was weak. It would be a relief to leave this behind. She didn't know how she'd stayed for so long. She'd started playing with Joy and Shannon in college. It was a way to earn a little money on the weekends. Before she knew it, Joy had slapped her name on the band and found a manager. Melody thought she'd play with them until something better came along, but nothing better ever had.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was early evening when they took the stage. Melody's polyester pants strained against her stomach and thighs. A day of arguing with Joy and the girls had sent her off to the food trucks, where she'd scarfed down a bratwurst and funnel cake in the heat of the afternoon. Now she felt bloated and angry. Mosquitoes buzzed around her head, drawn by the massive amount of hair spray she used to keep the teased and curled strands in place. Thank goodness it was a short set, just five songs unless the crowd demanded an encore. Unlikely.
Melody leaned in and struck the chord for the last number, a dreadful song she'd never have to play again, but something was wrong. Her mic was dead. None of the other girls were playing. Melody leaned back, raised an eyebrow at Shannon, who looked away.
Joy addressed the audience. Her mic was working fine. “I wanted to take a moment and let our fans know that one of our group is leaving the flock. Our keyboardist and backup singer, Melody, has decided to abandon the path. I know you'll all join me in praying for her, praying that she'll see the light and seek truth in the love of Jesus Christ.”
Melody seethed. How dare she call her a backup singer. Melody's voice carried the band, and Joy knew it. Joy's voice was just good enough for bad karaoke. Her face went hot. Sweat trickled beneath her bra, soaking the cheap blouse to her skin. Her chest burned, both from anger and the bratwurst.
“And now,” Joy said. “Our final number, âHeart Happy Heaven.' Join in if you know it.”
Melody struck the keyboard, her muscle memory ingrained with the instinct to perform. She harmonized. Her mic was live now. Of course it was. They needed her voice. Shannon's voice was flat and tended toward nasal. Joy's was predictable, bland. Worse, she insisted on writing songs like this one, full of sappy lyrics and lazy rhymes. “Heaven” paired with “seven,” of course, and “rise” with “lies,” but the kicker was the last line of the chorus:
And the angels appease us / when first we see Jesus.
Melody had argued with Joy over that line. “Why would the angels need to appease us? Is Jesus a disappointment?” There was no reasoning with Joy. She was convinced the song would be a hit. It wasn't.
She sang the horrid line and then, as the music ended and before the applause, she said the following: “Joy, you're an enormous cunt.”
The nasty word echoed across the stunned crowd. A baby cried. A woman coughed. Otherwise, silence. If Melody accomplished nothing else, at least she'd squelched the polite applause that usually followed Joy's dreadful song. And Joy, oh Joy, stumbled backwards like she might faint. Melody turned her back on the audience and stomped off the stage. She tried to muster some dignity, but as she stepped off the back stairs, the too-tight polyester fabric of her pants ripped right along the seam of her ass.
Obi snuck out into the predawn mist while Liam slept. When they first took to the land, he had worried about leaving his young son alone, even for short stretches. It wasn't that he worried anything would happen to the boyâthere was more danger in the cityâit was that he thought Liam would be afraid. Now, though, Liam was at home by the river and Obi didn't fret about whether he might wake up and believe Obi had abandoned him as his mother had. They were a team. Together they had become so used to the constant rush of the river flowing past that the noise of the water was the same as silence. Together they made the land their home.