Authors: Don Winston
“How do they pick it?” Cody asked.
“Well, lots of things,” Ross said. “GPA mostly, but it’s more than that. You gotta do a special project for your major. You write a thesis or do a big science project. It all depends.”
Moments later, Ross said, “I mean, it’s kinda a big deal. But not critical. It’s just a S’wanee thing.” He shrugged, downplaying its importance.
“But yeah, it’s very old-school,” he continued after a beat. “Like Oxford/Cambridge old-school. That’s where they got it. They give you those Harry Potter gowns, and people pass them down through the generations, with their initials embroidered.”
Finally, he said, “Okay, since I’m your mentor, I’ll tell you: It’s a very big deal.” He laughed loudly. “Every junior is obsessed with it. They just play it cool, like I am now.”
“What’s your major?” Cody asked, his ears clouding again.
“Psychology,” Ross said, shifting lanes around a green and yellow eighteen-wheeler that said “Palamino” on the back. Ross was going over eighty.
“Are you doing a special project?”
“What kind of project?” Cody asked.
Cody made a joke about the e-mail rat’s maze the housing department had trapped him in, which fell flat because Ross didn’t get it. Cody’s attempts to clarify only made it fall flatter, so he reverted to more questions about Ross’s Gownsmen project. “…routine…testing…” Ross sputtered, seemingly dismissive. “…we’ll see.”
Cody nodded and looked ahead, not hearing. He’d ask more when his ears were working.
They cruised past a brown highway sign that read “Lynchburg, TN—Home of Jack Daniel’s Distillery.” Ross pointed at it and said something that amused him, although Cody caught only the words “…dry county…”
?” Ross said louder, a few minutes later, looking over.
“Sorry, what?” Cody said, pointing at his ears.
Ross laughed and took an exit toward a small collection of gas stations and diners in the middle of nowhere.
“I said,” he continued loudly, “I gotta use the john. You?”
Cody nodded, holding up his near-empty beer.
Stuckey’s was part restaurant and part gift shop of strange things. The bathrooms were very clean. Ross waited for Cody and then tossed him a white squishy log wrapped in plastic as they left.
“That, Cody, is a pecan roll,” he said. “It’s a Stuckey’s rite of passage. Hell, Stuckey’s
is a rite of passage. The white stuff is called
.” He mouthed the word like caviar.
“Thanks, Ross,” Cody said, playfully buzzed. “Want some?”
“Fuck no. It’s all yours.”
On the way out, they passed a morbidly obese, humorless couple with wiry hair. They could be spouses or siblings. They stared down Ross and Cody like alien invaders.
“Remember, Cody: Once you leave Nashville…” Ross said under his breath.
“You’re in Tennessee,” Cody chimed in, sharing the joke. As Ross tossed something into the back, Cody unwrapped and took a small bite of the chalky, chewy candy. It was odd and surprisingly good.
• • •
They were at a very high elevation, and the scenery was stunning. Cody sensed they were getting close but didn’t ask. The highway snaked one tight curve after another through the massive limestone bluffs, and Ross handled them expertly. Even taller mountains loomed ahead. Static increasingly swarmed the satellite music.
The altitude and a third beer made Cody light-headed and giddy. He was on a fun ride.
A green road sign said Monteagle was one mile ahead. Ross took the exit and sped down a near empty road dotted with no-name gas stations and diners and a Salvation Army store. He sailed past a fast-food drive-in called Sonic, which stood out, brand-new and gleaming. It was crowded with cars as Ross raced by.
“Whoops,” Ross said, and then Cody saw the flashing police lights on their tail. “Hold your beer down.” Cody hid the half-full bottle in his door pocket as Ross pulled over.
“You know how fast you were going, sir?” The cop was typically humorless, with a thick, country twang. “License and registration.” Ross dug into the glove compartment and pulled out his wallet.
The cop looked through the window over at Cody. “Is that an open container in the car?” he asked. “How old are you?”
“It’s litter,” Ross answered, handing over his license along with his S’wanee school ID. The cop studied the ID and seemed trumped.
“I’ll have to call this in,” the cop said.
“I understand, sir,” Ross replied, and rolled up the window as the cop walked back to his car. “I shouldn’t be going that fast,” he added but didn’t seem concerned.
Cody had gotten a ticket once in New Jersey. It had bothered him for months. He was always terrified of getting in trouble. Now, with Ross, he felt relaxed, even though he’d just been caught drinking underage by a stern, itching-to-lock-someone-up cop in a small Tennessee town. He felt almost high.
The cop knocked on the window, and Ross rolled it down, smiling. “You still can’t be going so fast,” the cop said, handing back the license and ID. “You still can’t be drinking in the car. I’m reporting this.”
“I understand, sir, and you’re right,” Ross said.
“We have laws in this town. You gotta follow them.”
“Can I have your name, Officer? I’d like to recommend you.”
“You don’t need my name,” the cop said as he walked off. “Just obey the laws while you’re here.”
Ross drove away carefully, ticketless. They were outside the little town and passed a string of small beige brick houses. They were sad and lifeless, with old pickup trucks in the front yards and clothes hung on wires and a sign to reelect the county commissioner. An old woman in a housecoat sat in a folding chair on her front porch, fanning herself as she watched them pass.
Now they were going deeper into a wooded stretch. Cody had never seen such lush trees and grass. They were approaching two tall stone pillars on either side of the road. Suddenly, Ross pulled over and grabbed his BlackBerry.
“I gotta send a text before we go in,” he said. “You gotta text anyone?”
“I was gonna call my Mom when I got there,” Cody said.
“Well, do it now,” Ross instructed. “That’s another little S’wanee quirk. They don’t like cell phones. I mean, it’s not against the rules or anything. It’s like a peer pressure thing. To keep the community engaged with each other and not always buried in their phones.”
“I get it,” Cody said.
“You’ll hear someone say, ‘Save S’wanee,’ whenever anybody’s using their phone. It’s a playful reminder. You’ll get used to it.”
“Save S’wanee,” Cody repeated, still feeling buzzed.
“S’wanee has lots of quirks.” Ross laughed. “But I like this one. Just gotta wean myself off my CrackBerry after the summer.” And then he said, “You won’t get a strong enough signal here to call. But you can take a picture of the gates and send it to her, so she knows you’re here.” Ross pointed straight ahead. “The gates to the Domain.”
Cody wandered up to the ancient pillars. On one side was a shiny copper plaque that read “s’wanee” in thick letters. On the other side, a plaque said “the domain” in matching font. Both plaques looked brand-new and regal. The school clearly kept them sparkling clean.
Cody took a picture of each on his iPhone. He attached them to an e-mail to his mother with the subject line: “Save S’wanee.” He smiled, knowing his mother wouldn’t understand, as he hit the “send” button.
“I’m all set, champ!” Ross was leaning out the Jeep window. “Are you set?”
As Ross drove through the gates, he tapped the Jeep’s ceiling and smiled at Cody when he looked up quizzically. “I’m just giving her back,” Ross said.
“Who? What?” Cody asked. How buzzed was he?
“My S’wanee Angel,” Ross schooled. “Another tradition. You tap your ceiling to pick her up when you leave the Domain. She watches over you in the big, bad world. Then you release her when you return, so someone else can take her.”
“Do I get one, too?” Cody asked, loving these quirks.
“Sure, when you leave again someday. But you don’t need protection when you’re inside the Domain.” Ross turned to Cody and grinned.
• • •
It was a long drive from the gates through the quaint little town of S’wanee. After ten minutes, Ross took a right past a rustic bar and restaurant called Shenanigans, with picnic tables on the porch and neon beer signs in the window, past a small car mechanic, past an antiques shop with chairs and a sofa sitting outside on display.
He pulled up to a small stone kiosk and stopped. A portly security guard in a gray uniform came out and peered into the window.
“A little trouble on the way, Ross?” the guard asked, smiling.
“Sorry, Bob,” Ross replied. “I forget about that Sonic speed trap. Thanks for working it out.”
Ross turned to Cody. “Cody, this is Proctor Bob. He keeps out the bad guys.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Cody said.
“Yep, yep,” Proctor Bob said, backing away and slapping the Jeep’s roof twice. “Have at it, boys.”
Ross drove past the kiosk. Up a winding road called University Avenue: freshly paved asphalt, flanked by towering weeping willows that seemed to wave hello in the breeze.
The road straightened out, and then suddenly, just like that, Cody was there.
ody’s pulse ticked faster. It was even more beautiful than he’d expected.
It was a storybook village, a collection of magic castles. They matched one another in identical stone—not orange or pink or brown, but a wondrous meld of all three, glowing in the rich, complex afternoon sun.
He had seen the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge—all more glorious in person than in pictures. He felt the same awe now.
In the distance, bells and chimes riddled the air to welcome him. They came from those two majestic stone towers he knew well from his book: Breslin Tower—darker, ancient, comparatively squat; and Shapard Tower—younger, taller, more robust. The father/son towers seemed to compete for Cody’s attention with their merry greetings.
Ross drove slowly down University Avenue, as if letting Cody drink it all in. He rolled down the tinted windows, and the hot, thick air flooded the freezing Jeep. It was fragrant with freshly cut grass and a sharply sweet smell Cody didn’t recognize. Perhaps it came from the hundreds of blooming wildflowers or the thick vines snaking up the castles. Cody immediately remembered the hydrangeas from the brochure. They were in huge bushes clustered everywhere, with large, globelike blooms of pink and blue. The colors were softer in person. They reminded him of Marcie, and he made a mental note to call her.
They passed the Klondyke Book and Supply Store, where a few students chatted out front. They stopped their conversation and watched them roll by. Ross’s Jeep was the only car on the street, and it attracted a lot of attention.
“Whaddup?” Ross shouted at his friends and gave them the finger. They returned the gesture but were mostly interested in Cody, since he was new. Ross rolled on.
“Klondyke, McClurg,” Ross listed as they inched past the stone buildings. “Remember any of these? From the pictures?”
“I think so,” Cody said, peering past the buildings along the street to the groups of small castles beyond, wondering what they were, since they weren’t named on his cartoon map.
Outside McClurg Student Center, near the bike rack, sat three dogs staring at the front door, panting and waiting. McClurg was clearly a newer building, more architecturally modern, albeit built with the same warm, stone bricks. Through the tall windows, Cody saw only a handful of people at tables, as it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. They were adults, not students. Parents? Professors?
“Hello, Fletcher!” Ross yelled across Cody, through his window. The same older black gentleman from the DVD was leaving McClurg with a plastic doggy bag. Fletcher was nattily dressed as before and waved back as he approached the Jeep. Cody felt like he already knew these people. The young German shepherd mix followed him, leaping and lunging for the bag. The same circus act, although more aggressive in person.
“Fine afternoon, Mr. Ross,” Fletcher said in his easy, resonant voice, leaning into Cody’s window. “Where you coming from?”
“Just bringing in the last of my charges. Cody, Fletcher. He runs the place.”
“That’s right, I do.” Fletcher chuckled. “Kept it clean and going for the past forty-seven years. Don’t you go making a mess for me now.” He chuckled again, although Cody could tell he meant it.
“I won’t, sir,” Cody said, extending his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
The black German shepherd lunged up at Cody’s window with a threatening bark. Cody jumped back as Fletcher grabbed the collar and snapped the dog back.
“Down, Nesta!” Fletcher ordered, and Nesta looked away and around, not listening or caring.
“When’d you get this one?” Ross asked. Nesta started barking again, wildly, at nothing.
“Aw, the school gave her to me in June, after little Trixie passed on,” Fletcher said, scarcely audible through Nesta’s incessant barks. “They found her somewhere. She needs some training.” Nesta was lunging again for Fletcher’s doggy bag, which he held over his head. Fletcher’s hands were wrinkled and worn, like a lifetime laborer.
“Good luck with that.” Ross laughed, although Cody didn’t see the humor. This dog was a little nuts.
“Carry on,” Fletcher said, crossing University Avenue as Ross drove off. In the rearview mirror, Cody saw Nesta leap toward Fletcher’s neck, desperate for the bag and deaf to Fletcher’s orders. Very different from Maisy’s and Max’s pinging. He hoped Nesta had had her shots.
Just ahead, a bright, gleaming banner with purple letters hung high above University Avenue, billowing in the breeze: “Welcome Home! Yea, S’wanee’s Right!”
On the left, tucked off on a field in front of another unnamed building, dozens of students grouped about, holding red plastic cups. They were dressed in moving-in clothes, although their work seemed done. The girls were mostly in shorts and tank tops and flip-flops. In the center, several boys played a pickup game of shirts-and-skins touch football. Even at a distance, they looked incredibly athletic—ripped and buff, almost freakishly so. They were all barefoot, and their broad, cut chests glistened with sweat. The girls were watching the boys, and Cody realized he would have to work out more. Until then, he’d play on the shirts team.