The young man stretched his wet shirt back over himself and pulled his shoes on. He stood. The girl came to the shore and sat on the same rock the man had just left. “We heard you hollering the other night, is why I ask,” she said, slipping her finger into the heels of her sneakers to situate inside them. She stretched her thin pink legs out and scratched her shins. “Sounded like someone was dying, but I guess it was none of our business even so. What’s your name?”
He had been known in the past to yell in his sleep. Doctors told him he suffered from pavor nocturnus, night terrors – episodes during sleep that had seized his body with fear and had not allowed him to waken himself. His mother had seen him contract like a spring sometimes, had other times heard him weeping in his bed. On the worst nights, he’d scream that there were people at the footboard, women, crying and digging their fingernails into his legs, or that he could literally feel his chest prying itself open. He never remembered what had happened, and she never told him what exactly he’d done the night before, or how he’d terrified her until she herself had wept and wept.
“Jacob,” he said. “Aren’t you freezing?” He rubbed himself with the palms of his hands and looked back over his shoulder at the trailer. “I didn’t figure I was trespassing.”
“You are a little, I think.”
“Who owns the place?”
“Oh, the owners have been dead five years now. My name’s Sadler. Thanks for asking. You’re stepping on history up there, that’s all. You’ve been sleeping on the devil’s mattress, I can tell you that.”
They walked up the hill together, half-heartedly looking for her dog and whistling every now and then. She used her fingers to whistle and the sound was so piercing that it lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. She propelled herself with the help of the trunks of younger trees, up through the fallen leaves, while he braced himself on his knees and pushed up on the strength of his legs alone. He was well winded by the time they got to the fire pit in the front yard. His shins were both frozen and burning.
“Can I go in?” she said.
“Yes or no.”
“I guess so.”
She looked at each step on to the porch with some regard, considering angles, marveling at the damage that can be done to a house with five years gone by unoccupied. She took the handle of the door and pulled it open. The entry was dark and moist, a thin brown dust floating through and around, and she came in with a certain familiarity, moving to the kitchen and looking out the window, down to the bathroom to flush the toilet which didn’t work anymore. She stopped in front of the fish tank and swiped her fingertips down the face of it. She lifted each of the bottles on the windowsill and smiled at the buckshot holes in the wall above the table. She picked up a piece of shot and threw it at him. “I guess you’ve just made yourself at home, haven’t you?”
“I don’t expect to be here long,” he said.
She nudged the mattress with her shoe and picked up his pillow and turned it over and threw it back down. “No, I don’t guess you do.”
She went to the hall closet and opened it. He could tell she knew what she was doing, knew exactly where to look for what she was looking for. She took the stack of pictures from the shelf and went back out to the stoop and sat.
“This is my grandfather’s house,” she said when he came out behind her. “I spent half my life here before my grandparents died.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m here because my wife is dead. So.” His voice trailed. He’d said too much.
“You come up here and live in this because your wife is dead?”
“Call it paying my respects.”
She turned to regard the sinking corners of the house, the dead lawn, the roof rotting and bowed under rainfall, mushrooms pushing themselves between the walls and the siding. “Gotcha.”
The dog, muddy and panting, trotted by a few hundred feet down the driveway and caught her scent and came up to press his nose in her lap. She shook his ears between her fingers and scratched beneath his chin. “This is Bluebeard,” she said.
“So I figured.” He bent down and held out his fist and the dog lapped its tongue across his knuckles.
The girl handed Jacob a picture, the one of the people on the stairs, and said, “See, here. That old woman up front is my grandmother, one who used to live here. The bald one on the right is my granddad. That’s me, over beside the porch, with the guitar.”
“Who are the rest of them?”
“It’s the congregation of my church, mile or so down the road you came in on. That’s our pastor, Jim Thorne, up on top with the army haircut.” The man with the look in his eyes. The black book he clutched above his belt was the Bible.
“What are you? Baptists? Methodists?”
She shifted. “We’re Charismatics." Cleared her throat. "Pentecostals?"