The little town of Dugger, tucked away off Highway 27 in northeast Alabama, doesn't have much to say for itself. Longleaf pines and towering oaks line dirt driveways, and cars regularly slow for Mr. Johns' chickens, who spend their time proverbially crossing County Road 99. Cotton fields dominate the lower landscapes, while the mountains above are covered in thick green foliage.
As far as "things to do" in Dugger go, there's Murfree's Country Café, where you can get barbecue and homemade tea every day, and live music every Saturday. Other than that, though, "things to do" usually involve a thirty-minute drive, either to Brockton or to Thomasville. Of course, most of the population spends their Wednesday nights and Sundays at Dugger Mountain Baptist. They worship in the sanctuary, then move to the fellowship hall, where there's usually enough fried chicken or barbecue to feed a small army.
Evelyn Smith has been among those loyal worshippers since 1947, when she married Horace and they moved out to start their farm. Today will be the first time since Kenneth was born that she isn't at church, and being homebound seems to be wearing on her nerves; she can't seem to settle on one activity, and the only constants are the gospel music in the background and her occasional snappy remarks to Horace.
Michael Whiteside, on the other hand, never considered himself particularly religious, and in recent years has stopped going entirely. Instead, he spends his Sunday mornings in Brockton. He usually brings back the Sunday Times or a new book, so his wife, Teresa, assumes he is at the Books-A-Million there. She takes the kids on, unless Hannah is not cooperating, and explains to any curious members that Michael is working, or doing some project for her, or not feeling well.
Cara Leigh Dowdell usually goes on Sunday mornings, if only to hang out afterwards with the rest of the youth group – all 5 of them – but today she is in her bed. Her head is buried by her pillows, and she is crying softly. She hears the car leave; her parents are going to church without her. As the tires crunch down the gravel driveway, she gets up, wiping her eyes, and pulls on a pair of well-worn sweats. She grabs her keys and drives away towards Brockton. An hour later, she comes back in, carrying a Wal*Mart bag with a slender pink box in it. She throws the box under the bed and climbs back in, just in time for her parents to turn into the driveway.
"Horace, I just think that doctor doesn't know what he's talking about." Evelyn throws her sewing down again. "Who does he think he is, saying I can't go to my own church?" She holds up a hand. "No, don't tell me that he's 'probably right' and 'knows what he's talking about'. That man's had too much schooling. He don't know what the healing nature of God can do." She picks her sewing back up again and is quiet. "Now, Horace," she says suddenly, "you know good and well that Kenneth ain't going to go against what the doctor says, and I ain't heard from Debra in years." She pokes her needle into the fabric and yanks it through. "Besides, Kenneth can't come up here and drive me. He's all the way half cross the world."
There is no one else in the room. Evelyn looks out the window. "No, Horace. I got Debra's address something like two years ago, in a letter I think, but I ain't sure it's the same now. Seem like Kenneth said she moved out of state or something." She looks back at her sewing, where her last four or five stitches are crooked. "Oh, Horace. Would you look at this mess I made outta this dress."
Michael sips a caffé mocha and nibbles on a blueberry scone. Every few minutes he looks up at the barista, a pretty girl in her mid-twenties. She smiles at him, and he looks back to his paper – the Times he's picked up to give to Teresa when he gets back home later this afternoon. The barista comes over, pulling her green apron over her head. "Ready?" she asks. He folds his paper, swallows the last bite of scone, and stands up.
"If you are," he says, proffering his elbow. She folds her manicured hands over it and smiles again. They leave the little coffee shop and he opens the door of his car for her. She slides daintily into the vehicle and waits for him to walk around.
"Where are we going today, darling?" she asks. Every Sunday it's the same – well, no, not really the same, but the same idea. Somewhere for lunch, then back to her apartment for "coffee". She enjoys his attention – and knows he gives her more attention than he gives his wife. But, honestly, a girl gets bored, you know?
"We're going somewhere special," he says, smiling as he cranks his car. He hands her a bandanna from under his seat. "Put this over your eyes. We've got all day, and I plan on using every minute." He kisses her cheek as she ties the bandanna behind her head.
Cara Leigh watches as her parents pull out for a second time this Sunday. They're off to the adult bible study at the Lubbocks'. She would be leaving soon for her own bible study, at Laney's mom's house, but first she had a mission and a lack of supervision. She dives under her bed and pulls the Wal*Mart bag out from under the bed. Climbing back out, she digs the pink box out and reads the side panel, then tears into the box and pulls out the insert inside. "Generally… first morning… highest level…" She slid the insert back into the box and tucked it between her mattress and headboard. Her mother will never look there. Cara Leigh leaves then, muttering to herself. "Maybe I'm just being stupid," she says as she climbs in her car. "Maybe it's just late cus I'm worrying. Maybe." But something about the whole situation just wasn't working for her.
As she drives, she thinks about how to tell her boyfriend, Jake – and her parents. Oh, God, she thought, my parents are gonna kill me and Jake both. How am I going to tell them? She pulls up to Laney's and clambers out.
A week passes before anyone really realizes it. Murfree's Country Café is opening, the stage lit and set for the evening's performance. The preacher from Dugger Mountain Baptist is preparing his sermon for tomorrow – full to plenty of good old hellfire'n'brimstone, but with the saving message at the end shining like the brightly shining beacon he sees it to be.
Evelyn is at home, crocheting. She is not talking to her Horace tonight, although she has periodically had episodes all week. She doesn't know that Kenneth has called Debra and explained the situation, nor does she know that Debra is on her way to see her. She only knows that Kenneth is worrying over her. She plans to attend church in the morning, come "heck or high water", but her motives are not good when it comes to how she's going to get there. Suffice to say, the old town of Dugger feared for its picturesque roadside.
Cara took the test Tuesday morning, while her mother was at the overnight shift at the hospital and her father was asleep. "Shit," she muttered when she looked at it – but, as of tonight, anyway, she hasn't told Jake the "good" news, norhas she told her parents that she's about to make them very young grandparents. The only person she's told is Laney, who – while a devout Christian and abstainer – would never tell a soul. The town knew how its residents would judge when the truth came out.
Michael is preparing to tell Teresa that he wants a divorce. He wants to be with his younger, prettier barista, and out of the fiasco that is Hannah and her autism. The boys won't even claim her as their sister, he reasons with himself while he waits for Teresa to come home. She's tearing the family apart. I wish she'd aborted her, he thinks, although this is something he'd never dare to tell Teresa. His wife walks in the front door and he thinks back to the first time he'd seen her come in that door, how his heart (among other things) had swelled, how he'd loved the angel before him. Now, he suppressed his cringing heart and stood up. "Teresa," he said, keeping his voice low, "we need to talk."
Jake is coming for Cara Leigh at six. He wants to go see his dad's band for a little bit, and then they are going to an old church yard to stargaze away from civilization of any kind. He pulls into her driveway. "Hello, Mr. Dowdell. How are you?" he asks as he climbs out of his car.
"I'm doing well, Jake. How 'bout yourself?"
"I'm alright, thanks, sir." He smiles and goes inside, where Cara Leigh is waiting, watching television. She decided to forget about Patrick, the one-night-stand she'd had. He wouldn't know.
"Hey, Jake," she says now. "I'm ready if you are." She stands up, already unconsciously altering her motions. He reaches for her hand, and they leave for Murfree's.
Michael is on his way to Murfree's as well. He has enough clothes for a week or two in his car, and her wedding band. His head is hurting a little bit, and he knows that if he were to reach up to touch the sore place, there would be a round indention. Of course, he'd deserved that. He would be back tomorrow, after church, to break the news to the boys. Tonight he'd stay with Kitty, his barista, but first he wants to go talk to the good ol' boys down at Murfree's about their whole lot of nothing. Besides, he deserves a little lazy time after that God-awful argument.
He knows Hannah will not understand – but he feels she won't know enough to tell the difference with him there, and with him not. Hannah is rarely even coherent, and there's always the incessant talk about World War One whenever she is. It's all she can focus on if she's talking; even the church isn't sure how to handle her, those who know how to handle each and every one.
But the boys – they would not only understand, maybe they would side with him. They can see how absorbed Teresa is with Hannah. She doesn't do anything without her, for God's sake! No babysitter is good enough, not even old Mrs. Smith, the widow down the road. She was fine for the boys growing up, but now… well, Teresa had missed more than her fair share of ball games because Hannah wouldn't move, and screamed bloody murder when you picked her up.
Evelyn picks up the phone. "Smith house, Mrs. Smith speaking," she says, as she has every time since she married.
"Mom," a woman's voice says on the other side. Evelyn doesn't recognize the sound.
"Who is this?" she asks.
"Mom, it's me. Debra. Kenny called me. He's worried about you, Mom. I'm coming up to take care of some things he wants done. The doctor called, too. We're going to take care of you."
"Why, hello, Debra! It's been so long since I've heard from you!" Evelyn is overjoyed, although she's a little embarrassed to admit she didn't even recognize her own daughter's voice. It's been so long, though, she reasons. "How have you been? Horace," she calls, putting a hand over her receiver.
"Mom? I talked to you last Friday morning. Remember? I called during your appointment." A short pause, then, "Mom! Did you just call Daddy?"
"Why of course, Debra, dear! He'd love to talk to you."
"Momma," Debra says, her voice losing some of the diction it had carried before, "Daddy's been dead four years."
"No, Debra, dear. That's your uncle Bruce. He killed hisself, you know."
"Yes, Mom. Now listen. I'm on my way but I'm about 5 hours away. I'm gonna stop for the night, but I'll be leaving around 5:45 to get to you. I'll see you tomorrow. I love you, Momma," Debra says.
"We love you too, honey, see you soon! You call back soon, you hear? Don't go so long between calls any more!"
"Hmm?" His nose is buried in her collarbone, and hers in his hair. Their stargazing quickly changed to something else after they arrived. But Cara Leigh needs to talk to him, so she wiggles to a sitting position.
"Jake, we gotta talk."
"Oh." He sits up, off of her. "What's up?"
"Um…" she hesitates. Now that the time is here, her carefully practiced speech is gone. "Well… I just wanted to tell you…."
"What is it? Cara?"
"Well…" she feels so awkward. I love this boy enough to have sex with him though, she reminds herself. "Um… I'm late. By about a week and a half."
"My period." He doesn't say anything else, shocked into silence. "When I first realized I was, I went to the store and got some… um…" she swallowed. "…pregnancy tests. I took one, and it came back positive. If you want, I can take another, but it's supposedly ninety nine percent accurate." He's still quiet. "I just thought I'd tell you. I mean, I don't know what else to do." She tries to keep from crying and fails. He breaks his stupor and puts his arms around her.
"I don't know what to do either, but we'll do it, whatever it is. Have you told your parents?" She shakes her head. "Well, we need to tell yours, and mine. They can help us one way or the other. But I'm not gonna flake on you. We'll make a decision together, no matter what happens."
"Michael," Kitty says when he knocks on her door. "What's wrong?"
"Teresa and I are splitting up." He shakes his duffel. "I hate to ask you to do this but can I crash here tonight?"
"Actually –" but he is already stepping through her door.
"Kitty?" another male voice says, coming from the bedroom. A shirtless young man steps out. "Oh. Who's this?"
"This is Michael," Michael says. "Who is this?"
"This is Keaton. I'm Kitty's boyfriend."
"Michael, go away." Kitty holds the door open. "I told you, Keaton. This is who I've been sleeping with while we were broken up." Michael looks at Kitty sadly. "Michael, Keaton and I broke up right before we started doing what we did. But I don't love you, Michael. I'm sorry. Go away."
Sunday morning. Evelyn is getting ready for church. "Horace, I'll be back soon. I'm just going to go prove that stupid doctor wrong. We'll see you in a little bit." She grabs her keys from the table where they've sat since she learned to drive. She leaves the house, turning left towards the church. She drives along, quietly listening to the gospel station her car has always stayed tuned to. She looks down at her cell phone when it rings – and her car follows her direction into the church's rock sign. Her cell phone falls, open, on the seat.
"Momma? Momma? Where are you?" Debra says on the other end of the line.