A Snake Can Smile

Texas, I think, is a state full of Republicans and Cows. That's all that's there; Republicans, cows, and a whole bunch of empty space.

I shift in the uncomfortable car seat. The itchy upholstery stabs me through the wide rips in my skinny jeans, turning my pale and delicate skin a bright red. I sniff at the man driving, the reason I'm pressed up against the window, because he smells and has a big bushy mustache that has at least half of his breakfast caught in it. A checkered shirt struggles to cover his protruding belly, it's stuffed into beaten and worn jeans, a gold belt buckle barely peaks out beneath his enormous gut.

"Are we there yet?" I don't care that I sound like a bratty four year old. I'm a bratty seventeen year old and I don't want to be here.

"No. We've got about ten more minutes."

Ten more minutes to the "city" my grandmother lives in and we're still out in the middle of nowhere on a lonely little two lane highway. Green pastures with cows grazing languidly flash by my view. There are fence rows overgrown with gigantic trees, still bright green even though it's the beginning of October. Shouldn't tree leaves start to change in October? I don't know; there aren't any trees in Los Angeles, and that's the only place I've ever lived.

We pass a dark green sign with big white letters on it. "PRESTONVILLE: Pop. 987"

987 people. I had more than 987 people in my old high school.

"Only 987 people? Wow."

The driver shoots me a disgusted look. I'm sure he thinks I'm disrespecting his hometown and that I'm an ungrateful little brat, but I don't care. I am.

He drives through Prestonville at a frustratingly slow twenty miles per hour. The roads are rough and the shocks on his truck are horrible. I bounce up and down in the seats and wince; the burns and slash marks on my back are not completely healed; the bandages rub against the seat back. I wince. I don't care that he's glancing at me curiously out of the corner of his eye. I'm sure he knows what happened to me; I'm sure everyone knows. My grandmother is a horrible gossip, that's one of the things I remember about her.

Living with my grandma wasn't my idea. I haven't seen her since I was a young and impressionable twelve year old, uneducated in the ways of the world. That was before I became a judgmental little brat, before I realized that my grandmother may have been a southern gentlewoman, but she was also a horrible gossip and a religious nut job. She came home and gossiped to my mother about people whose names neither of us really recognized and clucked her tongue at me when I asked her who she was talking about. Her visits were never complete until she scolded my mom for having me out of wed-lock.

And now I'm in the truck of some guy with no sense of personal hygiene who owed my grandmother a favor, driving through the rough streets of Prestonville and wincing as the stitches and bandaged burns on my back complain about the bumpy ride.

The outskirts of town is all squat little ranch houses out of the seventies, most with rusty cars and wayward plastic chairs scattered throughout the yard. As the streets get narrower and we approach "downtown" the houses morph into old houses, the kind you would expect in the South, with wide porches, screen doors, and big trees. The town square is surrounded in old antique shops and boasts a square of grass called a "park" with the biggest oak tree I've ever seen in the center of it.

My grandmother lives right off the square on a shady little asphalt street with potholes and canyons in it big enough to rip the tires off anything other than a truck. The little Mini Cooper I left in LA would have died.

The house is one of those tall southern houses made of whitewashed wood. It has the required screen door, wide porch, big trees, and even a little garden peeking out from behind the sagging rot iron garden fence. It has more ancient oak trees than I've ever seen in one yard in my life. The wide porch is two stories, boasting several wooden rocking chairs.

I practically expect to see a bed and breakfast sign on the bright green, shady lawn. It's that quaint.

I don't think Mr. Dirty-Mustache for the ride. I climb out, wincing at the pain in my back, and make my way towards the truck bed. He doesn't get out to help me, and I think that's his way of silently declaring his distaste for the job of driving me home from the tiny county airport. I lower the truck bed, grab my things, and don't bother closing it again.

"Thanks for the help with the bags," I say sarcastically to him. "You know it's really great of you to help an injured teen like that. Great. I'm glad to see common courtesy is still around."

He doesn't say anything, but I know he hears me because the back windows of his truck are open. I don't look at him again and instead mount the pea-gravel path to my grandmother's house. It has the same canyons and fault lines as the asphalt road, it looks like giant oak tree roost have burrowed beneath it.

I push open the screen door and knock on the wavy glass of her front door. I barely have to wait a second before she pushes it open.

"Dan!" She says enthusiastically.

"My name's Dante," I say without humor. My name is too weird and untraditional for her to cope with, but luckily for her, she has an acceptable alternative. I've been "Dan" to her since the day of my birth.

"Welcome," she says. "I'm so glad you decided to come."

"I didn't decide to come," I say scornfully. "I was forced."

Her smile falters.

"Well come in, don't just stand out there in all that heat."

I walk past the threshold and her house is almost as stiflingly warm as the sun and humidity outside. It's dark inside, because the chandelier above her entry hall is one of those tacky stained glass chandeliers that casts a warm, dull light over everything. Her floors are hardwood, but they creak with age as I walk over them. A massive, creaking staircase looms in front of me, its banisters painted white and its dark wood steps covered in thick, plush green carpet.

"I'll show you your room."

"Great."

My grandma is always all smiles and cordiality. She always has a string of softly glowing pearls around her thin, wrinkly neck. Her soft silver hair is always pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck and she's always wearing a dress.

She leads me upstairs and she's so far ahead of me that her sensible one inch pastel purple heels are in my eye line. The steps creak just like I thought they would and it gets darker as we climb the stairs until we're in the second floor. It's nothing but a landing and two old fashioned, plain doors with small brass handles. Another ghastly chandelier hangs above my head.

"Here's your room," she says, thrusting open the door to our left.

My room is small, with a twin bed that looks as if it hasn't been slept in for at least ten years. A thick, hand knitted quilt covers it and a small bedside table covered with a doily and a vase of fresh wildflowers stands beside it. There's a few inoffensive paintings of birds and plants hanging on the walls, which are painted a subdued shade of sky blue. The one big window is thrown open, allowing a view of the garden in the back. Some of the massive oak trees nearly reach into the room.

I shrug noncommittally and drop my bags on the wooden floors, which give a groan of protest.

She takes that to mean that I like the room and then moves across the small landing to show me my bathroom. It's all soft pink tiles, an ancient porcelain toilet, and a tiny shower barely big enough for even my scrawny figure. The counter space is minimal, it's barely one square foot, and the mirror is small and dingy.

The third door on the landing leads to the wide, breezy porch overlooking the road in its miserable state and the other big, old houses.

"When do I start school?" I ask abruptly.

"Monday."

School is the farthest thing from my mind at that moment. I can hardly remember I'm even supposed to go to school, let alone finish up my senior year in this god forsaken town.

I still have college applications to do.

"Why? I'm not getting in to any colleges," I say. It's true. My grades in LA were horrible all throughout junior year, because of Nathan.

"I can put in a good word for you at Vanderbilt," she says with a wink. "I'm very influential over there."

I don't doubt it. My grandma is rich. Of course she's influential at the school that's referred to as "The Ivy League of the South." It's only fitting. And, of course she wouldn't make an offer to put a good word in for me until I come and move in with her.

"You're only offering because I'm living with you now," I say. "Don't. My mom sent me here, only because of Nathan. Only because he raped me."

There's silence between the both of us, and I continue, because never have I put a filter on my words, and I certainly won't start for her.

"The worst thing in my life to ever happen to me, and you take advantage of it."

She's frozen and I don't care if I'm injuring her pride, if she thought she actually lured me down here because I wanted to live with her. I didn't.

"I'm going for a walk."

I breeze by her, back into the landing, back underneath that ridiculous chandelier. I'm down the stairs and out the door in a matter of seconds. I stub my toe on one of the huge cracks in the sidewalk and curse the giant oak trees that made them. I look up at their branches, looming over me in a criss-crossing pattern of green and brown, like a big, intricate bird cage that I'm trapped underneath.

Hi, I'm Dante Bailey, and I was raped.

...

The town square is two second's walk from my grandma's house. The sidewalks here are neat and tidy and shaded by massive awnings protruding from ancient store buildings. Everything here is charming, quaint. The only advertisements for the stores are painted in big, curly letters on their windows. Nearly every store is an antique store or a restaurant.

I walk into the one lone art store, just to amuse myself.

A bell rings loudly as I push my way in through the glass front door. Inside there are bright fluorescent lights, plain blue carpeting, and bright white walls. The "art" hangs off big black wire stands propped against the wall, each piece boasts a hand written white price tag.

"May I help you?"

The girl at the counter has straw-like blonde hair pulled into two short pigtails sticking straight out from her head. She twirls a pen with a big, fluffy, pink pom-pom hanging from the end and smacks her gum loudly. A bright silver cross hangs from her neck.

"No," I answer sourly.

The name tag on her chest pronounces her name to be "Britney." She gives me a look and I'm sure she recognizes me as an outsider. Whether she's heard the rumors spread by my grandmother, I can't be sure, but I'm sure recognition will eventually dawn on her. She doesn't look very smart, so I may be gone before it happens.

The art is only safe and boring, pictures like the ones hanging in my room at my grandma's house. There are scenes of landscapes, of men riding horses, of lakes with cows grazing beside them. None of them are done with any talent or taste and I'm not surprised. The novelty of the store is quickly wearing off, until I reach the back corner where there is one more small display.

Here are pieces of true art. Even I have to admit that whoever did them has talent. There are no landscape scenes, no paintings of horses or cows or birds or lakes. There are people.

A man sits on the steps of a grand house, an angry expression on his face, clutching his hands into fists. I can see every line on the man's skin, every unshaven whisker, every disheveled piece of black hair. A boy throws an empty can of coke at another, laughing, tossing his blonde head back, and I can nearly hear his mirth. A woman sits on a log with her head in her hands, long black hair covering a pale face. Her hands are clenched in her lap, and a tear leaks down her cheek.

I gape. And then I look at the price tags. There is no nonsense about the prices here. The other paintings in the store are all around three hundred dollars. These are all at least quadruple that.

The bell above the door rings again, but I barely hear it. And then a friendly, deep voice is calling out from the doorway.

"Hey Britney. Any of them sold yet?" It's a laughing tone.

"Not a one," she answers back.

"Damn."

I hear her laugh and it's really obnoxious, like a donkey braying.

There's silence. I continue to look at the pictures, amazed at the detail in them. I barely register that I'm hearing footsteps walking up behind me.

"Do you like them?"

His voice is quieter, he's nearly whispering his question to me. He's stationed a few feet behind me, watching me watch the paintings as if they are some enthralling movie.

"Fuck yeah," I say. "These aren't done by some amateur artist," I said. "Whoever did this is fucking gifted."

I turn around to look at him briefly and his smirk is amused, teasing.

"Hi. I'm fucking gifted."

I just look at him for a little while. He has this amazing, dark, wavy and almost curly hair that falls in his eyes which are just as dark, a navy blue, and rimmed in dark circles as if he hasn't slept in a long time. The same dark shadows fall beneath his sharp cheekbones. He's gorgeous.

"You did these?"

"Yeah. And I'm coming here to take them down."

I frown.

"Well you're going to deprive this store of any real art," I say. "And deprive the citizens of this town of what little culture they can hope to be exposed to."

I wonder if my terse tone offends him. If it does, he hides it, and instead says:

"I'll take that as a compliment," he says. "Even though I don't think it is."

I shrug. He can take it at face value, that's how all my comments are meant to be taken.

He's looking at me curiously, and I can tell that he wants to know who I am, but he won't ask.

"I'm Dante Bailey," I say, interrupting our silence.

"Ryan Preston," he says. "Are you Mrs. Bailey's grandson? I'd heard you were coming to live with her."

I wince because he's probably heard about everything that happened to me.

"Unfortunately."

"She's a nice lady," he says. "Her husband worked for my dad before he... had to quit."

"I never knew him."

I look at him blatantly, I don't care if he knows I'm checking him out, I don't care if he gets freaked out because I'm the only faggot he's ever met. He's hot in an intense, dark kind of way.

"That's too bad."

"Not really," I say with a laugh. My grandfather died when I was thirteen, but neither my grandmother nor my mom breathed a word of it to me. I found out by listening over the phone. He never would come and visit us, and I was never told why. I'm sure it's because he hates my mom for having me with my dad.

He looks at me, and there's something in his eyes that looks strangely like a spark of irritation.

"What?" I sound annoyed, I know it, I don't care. He's looking down at me, judging me, and he doesn't even have the decency to tell me what he's thinking about me. "I'm a little brat, I know. Get over it." I can tell what he's thinking, because it's what I already think of myself.

The sound of Britney's gum smacking is gone and she must have retreated into the store room.

"No kidding," he mutters, stepping away from me.

"What was that?" I heard him perfectly well, but I want to hear him say it to me, not to himself.

"Nothing." There's no smile on his face, but he says "nice to meet you" as he retreats out of the shop.

I watch him go, and I can't keep myself from noticing his lean body as he climbs into a big, expensive looking truck.

"God he's hot," I say to myself.

"Yeah, he is."

I twist around in surprise to see that Britney is on her way back to her desk, her gum smacking resumed. She's going to judge me, I know it. But, she just sits there smacking her gum and there seems to be no activity in her head, no expression registers on her face.

I walk out of the store and back into the bright sunlight. I'm sure Britney doesn't even notice my absence.

After the five minute walk out of town square, I find that My grandma's front door is unlocked.

"Where were you?" She almost sounds mad, but the high lilt in her voice prevents her from revealing any real anger.

"Out," I say.

"Oh, that's nice. Where did you go?"

"Art store."

"Good." She nods. "Did you see the paintings by Ryan Preston? He's such a nice boy."

"I did. I met him there."

"Oh you did?" She sounds excited, all traces of her anger are gone. I can see that this conversation isn't going to be as short as I wanted it to be so I drop into a sprawled sitting position on one of her dark brown leather couches. I'm a vegetarian, I'm not sure if she knows that. These couches make me uncomfortable.

"I said I did, didn't I?"

She purses her lips.

"Don't you go and make enemies of the Prestons," she advises.

"I wasn't planning on it."

"I mean it, Dan." I almost snap to her that my name isn't Dan, but she carries on. "They are nice people and what's more they own nearly this entire town. Mr. Preston made a fortune from oil and now he employs nearly everyone on his ranch. They're very important contributors to our church."

"I wouldn't want to interrupt cash flow to the church," I say dryly. She gives me a stern look but says nothing more. I sit up, drag myself away from the couch, and up towards my room.

"I'm going to sleep."

It's only five o'clock, but there's nothing else to do, because in this town I have no friends and no decent family and no place to go but to bed.

Before I drift off to sleep, I realize that the Prestons really do own the town. It took me that long to make the connection between Prestons and Prestonville. I'm an idiot.

AN:

The first chapter of my first story on this account! Huzzah! (This is definitely not my first story on the site, by far.)

What do you guys think? I feel a bit guilty for posting this almost as soon as I finished it, but I'm already working on chapter 2, so hopefully I'll be able to update regularly.

Please review, because I love reviews. They make me happy, they're like hugs across the internet :)

Also feel free to point out mistakes and/or make suggestions, because I know there's room for improvement!

Until next time!

PS: Dante's last name is Bailey and his grandma is his mom's mom, but he doesn't have his father's last name on purpose. Just thought I'd clear that up.

PPS: Please please please please review. I really want to know what you think!